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Researchers Study How Food Marketing Creates A False Sense Of Health

Update Date: Jun 15, 2014 03:05 PM EDT

Health-related buzzwords like "antioxidants" and "gluten-free" lull consumers into thinking that the food products labeled with these words are healthier than they actually are, according to a new study. 

That "false sense of health," as well as a failure to understand the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged food, may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States, said Temple Northup, an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at UH, according to a press release. 

"Saying Cherry 7-Up 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, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health."

Researchers found that consumers tend to view food products labeled with health-related euphemisms as healthier than those without them. Researchers also noted that the nutrition facts panels printed on food packaging as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do little to counteract those buzzword marketing. 

"Words like organic, antioxidant, natural and gluten-free imply some sort of healthy benefit," Northup said. "When people stop to think about it, there's nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7-Up - it's mostly filled with high fructose syrup or sugar. But its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all."

The research also 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. 

"For example, if I gave you the word 'doctor,' not only 'doctor' would be accessible in your mind - now all these other things would be accessible in your mind -  'nurse,' 'stethoscope,' etc.," Northup added in the press release. "What happens when these words become accessible, they tend to influence or bias your frame of mind and how you evaluate something."

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