It's hard to imagine a sports nutrition product whose packaging is not fitness branded - that is, emblazoned with pictures of athletes, sports references or fitness accessories to incite consumers to get fit.
But a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research has suggested that such cues may actually be counter-productive for people who need them the most.
Take sports drinks for example that have more than 2 ingredients. Any drink with various ingredients is likely to either have added calories in the form of simple sugars, and if it's sweet but has no calories, it's got artificial sweeteners, which aren't great for your waistline, either.
Premade or store-bought smoothies are another example when you your purchasing something healthy when in fact many have more calories than a cheeseburger! Smoothies can have as much as 650 to 1000 calories in them due to added simple sugars and syrups. We feel more comfortable getting larger sizes of smoothies because they contain plant-based nutrients our bodies need, but as with anything, you can overdo it.
In three studies involving more than 500 people, researchers found that fitness cues for trail mix increased consumption and reduced physical activity afterwards -- and the more weight-conscious the individual was, the greater the effect.
Although healthy trail mix is possible (ones made with just nuts, some dark chocolate, and some dried apricots is one option), most of the versions we are buying at the store are loaded with candy-coated pieces, yogurt-covered raisins, sesame sticks and deep-fried banana chips. If you put your hand in the bag twice, you're looking at almost 600 calories chock-full of simple sugars, trans fat and refined carbohydrates!
"One may have expected that 'restrained eaters' would be more physically active in the presence of fitness-branded food, because the fitness label might prime an exercise goal and restrained eaters want to make up for increased consumption by burning additional calories.
"However, we show that the opposite is true," they wrote.
For co-author Joerg Koenigstorfer, this could be because portion sizes for sports food were often smaller meaning consumers underestimated the appropriate serving or because they were labelled as low-fat and boasted 'healthy-sounding' names associated with natural ingredients of sport, thus implicitly giving the green light that the consumer could eat more guilt-free.
Instead of acting as a visual stimulus encouraging the participants to do exercise, the fitness imagery acted as a substitute for exercise.
Need for regulation?
That this was especially true for restrained eaters, who were more at risk of being misled by marketing. The researchers called for additional consumer protection for this vulnerable group.
"More emphasis should be placed on monitoring food manufacturers' marketing practices [...], in particular when cues related to human fitness are used on food products.
Protein and energy bars are another big problem. Most about two steps away from a candy bar! We're often lured in by promises of high fiber or protein, but other than these added-in nutrients, there's not much else. Want fiber? Have some an apple instead! Want protein? How about an egg? The are much better options if you're trying to get back into your high-school jeans.
"I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about healthy eating is in thinking these so-called cereal or energy bars and drinks are a good choice, and most are definitely not," says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"While there is extensive regulation about nutritional information (including health claims), public policy makers have largely ignored other elements of branding and product packaging."
But Koenigstorfer said that he was not calling on sports nutrition companies to remove all fitness references on their packaging or branding. For one, some of their target consumers such as athletes needed a calorie surplus.
Instead, he suggested that a brand could offer gym vouchers or provide exercise tips on the packaging.
"[This] may decouple the link between the food product and restrained eaters' weight control goal, thus inhibiting overconsumption and the kind of compensatory thinking that likely led to less physical activity in our studies," he stated.
For the first study, 162 male and female participants were assigned to one of two groups. The first was given a trail mix called 'Fitness' with a pair of running shoes depicted, while the second was simply labelled Trail Mix.
Eating behaviour of all subjects was assessed using a 33-item questionnaire. They found the restrained eaters ate more food bearing the fitness label than the plain label.
In study two, the researchers looked at the effect on eating patterns when a food was promoted as healthy ('dietary permitted') or unhealthy ('dietary forbidden').
For the healthy group, 231 mixed subjects were told about the vitamin and mineral content of the trail mix and its positive role in weight management. The second group was told it contained fatty acids, sugar and oils and could lead to weight gain. The higher the level of dietary restraint, the more 'healthy labelled' trail mix subjects ate.
Finally, the researchers evaluated the effect on physical activity. 145 subjects tasted the trail mix (labelled as before) and were then asked to cycle on an ergometer for as long as they felt like. Again, the restrained eaters exercised less after eating the healthy-labelled food.
Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.