How So-Called Healthy Foods Can Fool You

Friday, April 8, 2011

As America’s collective waistline continues to expand, so does the number of food products parading themselves as healthy options. In light of growing concern over the nutritional value of the foods we put into our bodies, many food marketers have stepped up their advertising in an effort to stand out against their competitors.

“Marketing products is essential in our economy, and the food world is very competitive,” says Nancy Childs, Ph.D., professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Today a virtual food policy war is raging over use of front-of-pack labeling – meaning all the symbols, checks, stars, claims, and colored codes that are showing up on food labels identifying nutrients within. Grocer’s shelf codes for healthy and nutritious products add to an overload of information.”

Many products brand themselves with healthy adjectives, but Childs cautions against accepting such terminology at face value. “If it's fresh, local, artisan, organic, or natural, it's healthy in the consumer's eyes,” she says, “but these are production features and not nutrition features, and most consumers don’t distinguish these differences.”

Consumers also need to determine the context for the catchy claims that pepper food packaging. “Many legitimate statements of ‘lite,’ ‘less’ and ‘lower’ refer to the original version of the product, and are not a statement that the product is exceptionally low in an ingredient, or even lower than a competitor, just lower than an earlier version.”

With such attention-grabbing schemes, health-conscious consumers need to take the time to decipher the numerous food labels they are confronted with and to ascertain the difference between the package size and a serving size. One of the easiest unhealthy food habits to avoid is portion distortion.

“This may sound overly simple,” says Childs, “but unless you’re eating for a particular health condition, it’s all about portion size and calories. Check the numbers, not the messages. And checking numbers goes for your restaurant menu too – much of our overconsumption occurs when eating away from home.”

Media Contact

Childs currently holds numerous national appointments, including a position on the USDA Secretary’s National Agricultural Research Education Extension & Economics Advisory Board and a White House working committee on Dietary Guidelines messaging. She can be reached at 610-660-1643, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-1222.

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