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Even One Word Can Change A Consumer's Entire Perception On A Food Label

Although food labels state how many calories a food contains, the wording of ingredients is often not specific enough for consumers to make informed decisions. Symbolic information on a food label can change the perception of a product -- even when consumers are aware that this perception is false, write researchers.

"Companies are trying to reposition the same old line of processed foods as nutritious and healthy by portraying wholesome ingredients on the fronts of packages, but not really putting those ingredients in any significant quantities in the box," Bruce Silverglade, Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) director of legal affairs stated.

Researchers from the Institute for Environmental Decisions in Switzerland gave participants two identical boxes of cereal with detailed information in nutrition tables.

The only difference was that one listed 'sugar' as an ingredient while the other listed 'fruit sugar' -- a common colloquial term for fructose in German.

They found that consumers perceived the cereal labelled as containing 'fruit sugar' as being healthier than the one containing sugar simply because the word fruit symbolised healthiness.

Significantly, this perceived health halo occurred even though the consumers were made aware that, from a nutrition point of view, the two products were identical.

Much confusion also abounds over the term Organic. We see it everywhere now and marketing and advertising agencies have lead us to believe that this term is synonymous with "healthy."

Another major problem is grains. The food industry is inconsistently classifying foods as "whole grain" and, in many cases, misleading consumers according to a study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers.

"We can rule out that the label 'fruit sugar' made participants believe that the product has fewer calories, less fat, or less sugar compared to the other product, because we provided identical nutrition information for the products."

"Therefore, our results are in line with our hypothesis that symbolic information is an important factor in people's evaluation of how healthy a food product is, and may lead to biased judgments."

This reliance on symbolic information was typical of heuristic judgment and could result in biased decisions, wrote the researchers.

Green washing and nutriwashing

"Our findings suggest that consumers are highly susceptible to the symbolic information that food marketers may specifically use in an attempt of greenwashing or nutriwashing to promote their products," they wrote.

"This is especially concerning... given that even high involvement consumers, who generally engage in more profound information processing, are susceptible to this fallacy."

According to Sütterlin et al., the implications of the findings for marketing and public health are clear. For marketers, the emphasis on natural ingredients or ingredients with a positive symbolic meaning can alter the perceived healthiness of a food, thus impacting the consumer's information processing and decision-making.

For public health policy-makers, the challenge is to educate the public so they are not misled by symbolic product information.

They suggest that future research could focus on whether such positive symbols also impact on the perceived eco-friendliness or quality of a product.


The experiment involved 164 individuals, the majority of whom were men. After having being shown either the nutrition table labelled fruit sugar or sugar, they were asked to answer questions on the healthiness of the product. Subjects in the sugar category rated the cereal as less healthy.

"The difference between the two groups was significant," wrote the researchers.

Breakfast cereal was chosen because cereal manufacturers often emphasised the fact that their product did contain added sugar but was sweetened using honey, maple syrup or 'fruit sugar', giving the study's findings particular significance.


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