Dieters find ‘healthy’ food labels can be tricky

Dieters may be more easily fooled by “healthy” food labels or descriptions than those who don’t worry as much about nutrition facts. Keep that in mind if you’re still struggling to prepare for swimsuit season and decide to go out to dinner -- or even shop for food – this weekend.

In one of several similar experiments, researchers from the University of South Carolina found that dieters were more likely to rate a pasta dish as healthful if it was labeled as a salad. They reported their findings online April 12 in the Journal of Consumer Research.

To be fair, participants didn’t see the calorie count—something many fast-food chains in California post and something the FDA would like made public across the country.


But still... pasta and salami?

In the pasta-masquerading-as-salad experiment, 76 people were randomly approached and offered $5 to participate in an experiment. Researchers asked them to imagine ordering from their favorite lunch menu and seeing a daily special (a color photo was included):

“Diced tomatoes, onions and red peppers tossed with pasta shells, salami, mozzarella cheese and dressed with a savory herb vinaigrette. Served chilled on a bed of fresh romaine lettuce.”

The dish was described as the “daily salad special” to some of the subjects and “daily pasta special” to others. The subjects rated how healthful and how nutritious the dish appeared to be on a scale of 1 to 7. Then, they filled out a questionnaire on dieting habits, such as how often they read nutrition labels or whether they often planned out meals for the day, and the researchers divided the group into dieters and non-dieters.

The dieters were more likely to be fooled by the labeling. They gave the dish a slightly higher healthy grade—4.7 compared to 4.0—if it was labeled as a salad than if it was called pasta. The non-dieters gave both about the same grade.

In another experiment, the same researchers gave college students 20 Jelly Belly Fruit Sours (equal numbers of apple, cherry, lemon, orange and grape) they could snack on while watching a nine-minute movie. Some students were told the beans were “candy chews” and others were told they were “fruit chews.”

Anyone trying to cut out sweets will commiserate with what happened next: The dieters ate more candy (eight beans) than the non-dieters (six beans) if the candy was called “fruit chews.”

The authors explain the irony in their conclusion:

“The difference in the patterns of dieters’ perceptions of food healthfulness and consumption quantity might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that dieters generally want to eat larger food portions and can satisfy this desire as long as they are able to justify their eating behavior.”

How true. Now hand over the nutrition facts.