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Feedstuffs magazine reports:

HEALTH-related buzzwords, such as "antioxidant," "gluten-free" and "whole grain," lull consumers into thinking that packaged food products labeled with those words are healthier than they actually are, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston.

That "false sense of health," as well as a failure to understand the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged foods, may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the U.S., suggested Temple Northup, an assistant professor at the University of Houston's Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.

Claiming that a cherry-flavored soda "contains antioxidants is misleading. Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they're not," said Northup, principal investigator of the study "Truth, Lies & Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health."

The study examined the degree to which consumers link marketing terms on food packaging with good health. It found that consumers tend to view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them.

The research also showed that the nutrition facts panels, which the Food & Drug Administration requires to be printed on food packaging, do little to counteract that buzzword marketing.

The study looked at the "priming" psychology behind the words to explain why certain words prompt consumers to assign a health benefit to a food product with unhealthy ingredients.

"Words like 'organic,' 'antioxidant,' 'natural' and 'gluten-free' imply some sort of healthy benefit," Northup explained. "When people stop to think about it, there's nothing healthy about (certain labeled products). ... Its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all."

This triggered concept is then available to influence later thoughts and behaviors, often without explicit awareness of this influence - the so-called priming effect, Northup said.

Northup developed an experiment using the priming theory to gather quantitative research on how food marketers influence consumers. He developed an online survey that randomly showed images of food products that included either actual marketing words, like "organic," or an edited image removing any traces of those words, thereby creating two different images of the same product. A total of 318 study participants took the survey to rate how "healthy" each product was.

The products with trigger words in their labels analyzed in the study were: fruit snacks and apple sauce both labeled as organic, canned pastas labeled as whole grain, chocolate cereal labeled as heart healthy, cherry-flavored soda labeled as containing antioxidants and peanut butter and tortilla chips both labeled as all natural.

Northup found that when participants were shown the front of food packaging that included one of those trigger words, they would rate the items as healthier.

"Each time a participant saw one of the triggering words on a label, they would identify it as healthier than the other image without the word," he said.

After completing the product evaluations, the study participants then reviewed the nutrition facts panels on a variety of products. These labels would be presented two at a time so participants could choose the healthier food or drink option.

"Food marketers say there are nutritional labels so people can find out what's healthy and what's not," Northup said, but "findings from this research study indicate people aren't very good at reading nutritional labels."

Northup hopes the results of this study will contribute to more dialogue on how food is marketed, guide development of specific media literacy and help people understand the effects of how food is marketed to consumers.

Natural issue

The Consumer Reports National Research Center recently conducted a phone survey of 1,004 U.S. adults - half men and half women - that also shed light on the food labeling issue.

According to the results, 59% of consumers check to see if the products they are buying are "natural," despite there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term. Additionally, while a majority of people think that the natural label carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.

The survey also revealed that most consumers believe packaged foods carrying the natural label should: contain ingredients grown without pesticides (86%), not include artificial ingredients (87%) and not contain genetically modified (GM) organisms (85%), reinforcing a wide gap between consumer expectations and reality.

The poll also collected new data on what consumers expect from a wide range of food labels, including "fair trade," "humane," "organic," "raised without antibiotics" and "country of origin."

"Our findings show consumers expect much more from 'natural' food labels and that there is a strong consumer mandate for better food production practices in general and food label standards that meet a higher bar," said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center.

Consumer Reports is seeking to close that gap by calling for a ban on the "natural" label on food as part of a campaign in partnership with TakePart, a social action platform.

"Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the 'natural' food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the 'natural' label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing and deceptive. We truly don't believe there is a way to define it that will meet all of consumers' expectations," Rangan said.

Rangan expressed the need to "clean up the green noise in the food label marketplace so Americans can get what they want: truthful labels that represent important and better food production systems."

The Consumer Reports survey also included additional topics related to food production, including animal welfare, antibiotic use and labeling GM and organic foods.

The survey found that the majority of consumers think the humanely raised claim on eggs, dairy and meat products should mean: that the farm was inspected to verify this claim (92%), that the animals had adequate living space (90%), that the animals were slaughtered humanely (88%) and that the animals had access to the outdoors (79%).

For the "raised without antibiotics" label, 65% of Americans correctly believe it means that no antibiotics were used, but 31% mistakenly think this label means no other drugs were used in addition to antibiotics. Furthermore, if an animal was routinely given antibiotics, the vast majority of consumers (83%) want the government to require that the meat from this animal be labeled as "raised with antibiotics."

In regard to GM foods, 92% of Americans think that before GM food is sold, it should be labeled accordingly and meet long-term safety standards set by the government; this applies to GM salmon as well. Additionally, 72% of consumers say it is crucial for them to avoid GM ingredients when purchasing food.

Nine out of 10 consumers demand that the "organic" label on packaged or processed foods should mean that: no toxic pesticides were used (91%), no artificial materials were used during processing (91%), no artificial ingredients were used (89%) and no GM organisms were used (88%).

On origin labeling, 92% of Americans want food labels to reflect the country of origin, and 90% want to know if their meat is from outside the U.S.

Over the next several months, Consumer Reports and TakePart will post an ongoing series online called "Know Your Food, Know Your Labels" that will look at a wide array of food labeling concerns, ranging from well-defined terms like "organic" to newer terms like "humane" or "fair trade," where some labels are meaningful and some are not.

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