Eating for Health

Published on April 18th, 2013 | by Mary Gerush


Food Labels: How Do People Perceive Their Healthful Claims?

Food Labels

Take four food products, packaged and labeled identically except for one detail: Three of the packages claim low-sodium benefits — one doesn’t, claiming only that it “tastes great.” Show these four packages to 500 consumers, and then survey them about their attitudes and understanding of the low-sodium claims and the products’ healthfulness. That’s what authors of a recently published study from the American Society of Nutrition did. Their findings showed how influential food labels can be to so many of us.

Three Intriguing Outcomes

  1. Low-sodium claims improved consumer perception even though nutrition was equal. Low-sodium claims, like statements the food could lower blood pressure or reduce hypertension risk, garnered more positive attitudes about a product and its healthiness than the “tastes great” claim (which was the control sample), even though all labels indicated identical nutritional value.
  2. Hypertensives really want to believe those low-sodium claims. Respondents with high blood pressure found the low-sodium claims even more appealing than those without hypertension. So many of us consume too much salt, and we know it, so we look for those low-sodium alerts on the shelves.
  3. Low-sodium claims have a halo effect. In general, participants also attributed added benefits to foods with low-sodium claims — benefits well outside the known link between sodium and blood pressure. An NPR article on the study stated that respondents believed low sodium foods had the potential to help them lose weight, soothe constipation, and influence diabetes.

What It Means

Unfortunately, labeling alters perception, and perception often becomes reality.

I researched sodium labeling regulations and became utterly frustrated in my feeble attempts to make sense of the information. And while efforts are under way to improve consumer transparency into the foods we eat and companies we support, it’s tough to know what to believe anymore — which means it’s time to:

  1. Take the responsibility. Don’t believe most of what you read on a food label. As Matthew Lovitt, a writer for one of our sister sites, Vibrant Wellness Journal, states perfectly, “…we should always remember that food labels are point of sale advertisements that are aimed at influencing our purchase behaviors.” Food marketers know how to sway your mood and touch your inner impulse buyer. Know they are there — watching and waiting.
  2. Do the research. Learn how to read and understand the ingredients and nutrition facts on food labels. The FDA web site hosts guidance for deciphering nutrition facts, including advice for those trying to watch their sodium intake. Matthew’s post also offers really good information for understanding certain labeling claims.
  3. Scrutinize what you buy to understand the real, unvarnished truth about what you eat. Learn and use your understanding to make better choices. Leverage other tools, like Fooducate, to supplement your valuable knowledge.

John Lennon once said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” Let’s take control over how we read, understand, and perceive food labels to make the best choices we can.

What do you think of the study? Do you have links to other good consumer-focused food labeling advice?

Image Credit: libertygrace0 via flickr/CC

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About the Author

Hi all! I'm Mary Gerush - a recovering corporate worker bee turned good-farm-real-food advocate and writer who wants to help people understand what they're eating. I tend a tiny urban farm in Dallas, TX, and hope to scale up one day soon. Omnivore through-and-through, there's not much I love to eat more than a butter-basted grass fed steak fresh from a searing hot cast iron skillet. Follow me on , , and !

4 Responses to Food Labels: How Do People Perceive Their Healthful Claims?

  1. Like the placebo effect, I strongly agree to the simple fact in this post that perception really adds to the overall effect of a product’s nutritional values. Thanks also for bringing up those studies on products with ‘low- sodium’ tags. I think that could also affect not only the end users, but also distributors and product creators as well.

    • Mary Gerush says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’m guilty of falling for those key phrases like everyone else. But there is so much info on food labels these days, hopefully we will quit falling for the marketing ploys!

  2. AEM says:

    Definitely underscores the need to read labels.

  3. I think that we all must read food labels closely to ensure that they do not contain anything that we would not wish to consume. The producers have a responsibility to tell the consumers exactly what is in their product.

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