A group of researchers at the USDA examined how people choose a snack food. They selected snack chips – potato and veggie – because this food category is generally not considered a healthy choice. People were seduced into purchasing chips based on health halos – the tendency of people to rate products with health attributes based simply on a label. The subjects in the study rated vegetable chips healthier than potato chips, but interestingly, they rated fortified potato chips as the healthiest of all. None of the choices could have been remotely categorized as a healthy food but the choice of name, not the nutrition label, was the factor that drove the person to select the type of chip.
Researchers from Stanford University wanted to see if the name they gave a vegetable would increase a person’s vegetable consumption. In a university cafeteria the same vegetable was labeled in four different ways. They called carrots simply carrots. Or they called them by a healthy restrictive name such as low salt carrots. Or they gave them a healthy positive name such as vitamin-A-rich carrots. Or, lastly, they gave the carrots an indulgent name such as Grilled Citrus-glazed Carrots. Although the names changed the carrots were all prepared in the same way.
The indulgent labeling was the winner, 25% more people selected these carrots over carrots with the basic labeling. Fewer people selected the healthy restrictive labeled carrots because there is a perception the healthier foods are less tasty. Obviously, names count.
Another marketing strategy to boost brand sales is to provide a low- or no- label claim – low fat, no sugar added, reduced sodium. These labels offer a shopper a false sense of confidence that they are making a good choice, but often these claims do not reflect the actual nutritional value of a food. For example, a low fat cookie may have more sugar and sodium than the regular version. When one ingredient, such as fat, is lowered something else has to be added to support the taste you expect.
It is estimated that 13% of foods and 35% of all beverages we buy have a low-content claim. Low-fat is the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium. Foods with a low claim are actually the most confusing because lowering the amount of one ingredient does not assure you of a more nutrient-rich food.
To help you make better food choices, here are what low-content labels really mean based on food labeling regulations.
· Low calorie – 40 calories or less in a serving of food.
· Reduced/less calories – at least 25% fewer calories than the standard version of that same food. If a regular brownie has 240 calories a brownie labeled reduced calorie must have no more than 180 calories.
· Low fat – a food cannot have more than 3 grams of fat in a serving.
· Reduced/less fat – at least 25% fewer grams of fat than the standard version of that same food. If two tablespoons of salad dressing has 14 grams of fat, a reduced fat version must have less than 10 grams.
· Low sodium – a serving of food can have no more than 140 milligrams of sodium. Many brands avoid using this labeling term because consumers perceive it as a less tasty option.
· Reduced/less sodium – at least 25% fewer milligrams of sodium than the standard version of the same food. If a serving of potato chips has 220 milligrams of sodium a reduced sodium version must have less than 165 milligrams.
· Sugar-free – less than 0.5 grams of any form of sugar. A sugar-free food will often be sweetened with a sugar substitute.
· Reduced/less sugar – at least 25% lower in added sugar when compared to a serving of the original version of that food. If a regular donut has 12 grams of sugar a reduced sugar donut can have no more than 9 grams of sugar.
· No added sugar or No salt added – the food has no added sugar or salt but it can contain natural sugar or salt found in the ingredients. Do not assume these foods are sugar or salt free.
Bottom line: To be sure you are making a healthy choice, turn the label over and review the nutrition label and ingredient listing. Don’t buy by name alone.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:
Healthy Wholefoods Counter
Complete Food Counter
Fat and Cholesterol Counter
Available in print from Gallery Books:
Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.
Your Complete Food Counter App: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/your-complete-food-counter/id444558777?mt=8
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: www.TheNutritionExperts.com.