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The real truth about how food labels affect the food we choose and buy

By Brierley Wright, November 20, 2013 - 10:20am

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Next time you open your pantry, take a closer look at the packaging of your food.

You probably see a cacophony of health claims and healthy–sounding words: High in protein! With omega–3 fatty acids! Contains probiotics! High in calcium! Whole wheat! High fiber! Gluten–free! All–natural! Organic!

This labeling free–for–all is a growing trend by food manufacturers—which Rachael Moeller Gorman reported on recently for EatingWell Magazine. Companies claim they do it to give consumers what we want. And we do want healthy options: a recent NPD Group market analysis found that people are increasingly interested in adding “good things” to food (more is better!), as opposed to removing bad things (fat, cholesterol). And according to one survey, 66 percent of consumers at least occasionally buy food because of a specific healthy ingredient.

Related: 6 Healthy–Sounding Foods That Really Aren’t
“Healthy” Nutrition Labels to Avoid

Label claims not only influence the impression you have of the brand, but also impact how healthy you perceive the food to be and how much of it you eat. What’s more, the people most influenced “are the people who care about the food being organic, or pesticide–free, or free–range, or fat–free, or non–GMO,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and an EatingWell advisor.

In other words, people like you and me. The problem is that sometimes those claims encourage us to make choices that may be unhealthy. Read on to see just how powerful packaging can be.

Labels can mislead us into thinking the food is healthy.
When researchers showed two groups of students a candy bar with either a calorie label in green or in red, students believed green–labeled candy bars were healthier. Yet both candy bars had the same number of calories.

Next, researchers compared green labels to white ones, this time in an online survey. They also asked the subjects several questions to determine how health–conscious they were. Turns out, the people who reported being really health–conscious judged a candy bar to be more healthful when it bore a green label. For people who weren’t health–conscious? No effect at all.

Don’t Miss: 7 Ways Nutrition Facts and Food Labels Might Trick You

Labels impact how hungry we feel.
Labels can even change our behavior. One study used a chocolate bar to show how food labels alter perceptions. Researchers divided 51 students into three groups, gave two groups a piece of the same chocolate bar, but framed the bar in different ways: the people in group 1 ate “a new health bar containing high levels of protein, vitamins and fiber and no artificial sweeteners”; the people in group 2 ate “a chocolate bar that is very tasty and yummy with a chocolate raspberry core”; and the people in group 3 were the controls, receiving no bar. Subjects filled out surveys on how the bars tasted, how healthy they were and how hungry they felt before and after the snack. The people who ate a “healthy” bar later reported being hungrier than the participants who ate a “tasty” bar. Interestingly, the “healthy” bar eaters were even hungrier than those in the control group who ate nothing.

Labels influence our hormones.
At the Yale Clinical Research Center, 46 people were given the same milkshake. Before they drank it, half of them saw a shake called “Sensi–Shake,” with “Guilt Free Satisfaction” emblazoned on the front. A front–of–pack tab showed “0% fat, 0 added sugar, and 140 calories!” The other group of participants saw a shake called “Indulgence,” with a deep–red label and the phrase “Decadence You Deserve.” The Nutrition Facts panel listed 620 calories per serving and the descriptor on the front said the shake was smooth, creamy, rich and delicious.

The shake actually contained 380 calories. The researchers tested subjects’ blood for ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry and want to eat. In people who read the “indulgence” labeling, ghrelin increased steeply as they anticipated drinking the shake, and then fell back down after they consumed it. In other words, they craved it, and then felt satisfied and full afterward. But in people who saw the “sensible” packaging, ghrelin levels stayed fairly flat. The participants did not feel physiologically satisfied, even though they consumed the same number of calories as the indulgence group.

Bottom Line
We’re probably better off eating things that don’t need labels, like plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. But, let’s be honest, we all eat labeled food. Keep in mind that the marketed “better–for–you” version isn’t always healthier. In fact, indulging (moderately) in the “regular” version might just be the best choice.

Do you read food labels? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Brierley Wright, Health Blog, Good choices, Health, Nutrition, Wellness

Brierley Wright
Brierley's interest in nutrition and food come together in her position as nutrition editor at EatingWell. Brierley holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. A Registered Dietitian, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont.

Brierley asks: Do you read food labels?

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