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‘Healthy’ Food Label Drives People to Consume More Calories

Update Date: May 22, 2013 11:37 AM EDT

For consumers who want to eat better and improve their quality of life, they might reach for the products with the 'healthy' label. Even if the food might be healthier in some aspects to its standard counterpart, researchers discovered that this label might have adverse effects on consumers. In a study commissioned by Safefood, a government agency in Ireland, head researcher, Barbara Livingstone, analyzed the effects that the word healthy had on people's decision to eat as well as the portions they ate. Livingstone, who is a professor from the University of Ulster from the United Kingdom, found that not only did people end up eating more portions when the food was labeled healthy, people also assumed that they were eating fewer calories when that was far from the truth.

"Foods are marketed as being healthier for a reason, because food producers believe, and they correctly believe, that those labels will influence us to eat their products and perhaps eat more of their products," commented Dr. Cliodhna Foley Nolan, director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood. "We think that these kinds of marketing means...of labeling things as being healthier, that it gives us a certain license to overeat and it can be dangerous."

The research team recruited 186 adults and asked them to serve themselves a bowl of coleslaw. There were two options of coleslaw labeled either standard or healthy. The researchers recorded how much they ate and discovered that people who served themselves the healthy coleslaw tended to serve themselves more than people who ate the standard one. The researchers reported that the average person serving himself or herself healthy coleslaw ate 103 grams while the average person who picked standard coleslaw ate 86 grams.

The researchers also found that people's estimations of how many calories are in the products were way off. Both coleslaw options were around 223 to 224 calories per serving. When the participants were asked how many calories the healthy coleslaw had, the average number was 113 calories. These findings suggest that the label healthy could be very misleading, which leads to overeating and obesity. The researchers state that even if a product has the healthy label, it does not mean that the item is healthier overall. A healthy label could mean that one aspect of it is healthier, such as fat calories, while other nutritional values are actually worse. The researchers believe that their findings should influence companies and programs to push for a change in these labels.

Next time you reach for the healthier option, remember to check just how much healthier it actually is. The findings were published in the International Journal of Obesity

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