Health labels may actually do more harm than good

While doctors and scientists have long explored the psychological roots of the obesity epidemic in the U.S., some new research would argue that the problem lies in how food is labeled. According to a new study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, foods labeled "healthy" are contributing more to problems with overeating than unhealthy food.

Researchers from the Austin McComb School of Business in Texas found that consumers tend to perceive foods with healthy nutritional labels as less filling and end up eating more of it. They found this by conducting three separate tests on the effects of perception on hunger.

First, they tested 50 undergraduate students at a large public university to see how they related healthy food and filling food. Then, they measured the perceived hunger of 40 graduate students after eating a cookie, portrayed either as healthy or unhealthy. In the third test, they compared how much 72 undergraduate students ordered food before a short film to how much they actually ate during the screening. Put together, these tests indicated how healthy foods were seen as less filling and instigated more binging habits than supposedly unhealthy food.

The researchers noted how the use of front-of-package nutritional scales impact consumer perception and behavior. They explained that consumers tend to order "healthy" foods in larger portions and consume greater amounts. This bias even affects consumers who reported that they didn't believe "healthy" foods were less filling. According to a news release about the study, the researchers suggested that food manufacturers use the packaging to highlight the nourishing aspects of the product to dispel the myth that it won't be filling enough.

What's especially troubling about this perception is that not all food labeled as "healthy" is necessarily telling the truth. Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked the maker of Kind Bars to stop describing their fruit and nut bars as "healthy." The products had too much fat in them to meet that standard.

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