Food labelling can give helpful information to consumers looking to make healthy choices. But as more food labels pop up, consumers can too easily associate a specific label with certain health outcomes, overestimating the value and risk a label implies.
Many of today’s food labels create either a “halo effect,” implying the food is more healthy or nutritious than it actually is, or a “reverse halo effect,” making it synonymous with being bad. Many consumers misinterpret the meanings of various labels, leading to unhealthy outcomes.
For example, celiac disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal autoimmune disorder, is caused by a reaction to eating gluten. Only about one per cent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, and approximately six per cent suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac and gluten-sensitivity sufferers must follow a lifelong gluten-free diet, and labelling helps them identify the many products that contain gluten such as: sauces, soups, salad dressings and marinades, vitamins and supplements, medications, cosmetics and more.
Riding the tide of a reverse halo, the gluten-free industry reached sales of $11.6 billion in 2015, and grew by 136 per cent from 2013 to 2015, but many consumers seem to follow a gluten-free diet unnecessarily.
Some parents have started placing their children on gluten-free diets to relieve digestive problems or prevent celiac, but often without prior testing for the disease or consultation with a dietitian. A recent commentary in the Journal of Pediatrics warns that putting children on gluten-free diets carries more risks than benefits, if they have not been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Packaged gluten-free foods are often higher in fat and sugar than products that contain gluten, and many are not fortified with vitamins and minerals, so the gluten-free diet can actually lead to nutritional deficiencies. According to the Journal, some people become obese or overweight after starting a gluten-free diet.
A recent market study showed that nearly half of Americans feel a gluten-free diet is a fad, yet 25 per cent deliberately consume gluten-free foods. According to a 2015 survey of more than 1,500 American adults, 35 per cent said there was “no reason” for their selecting gluten-free foods, followed by 26 per cent who called it a “healthier option.” Gluten sensitivity was the least common reason, cited by only eight per cent.
Similar halos and reverse halos impact perceptions and consumption of other products. While “low-fat” foods are often good choices, people will often overlook other nutritional information showing the snacks and other foods they’re eating are high in calories or sodium. Because of the “low-fat” claim, consumers feel they are allowed to eat more. Some studies have shown that people opting for “low-fat” snacks ultimately consumed more calories than those opting for regular snacks.
The claims also extend to other food-related behaviours. In one study, people who bought reusable shopping bags were shown to be more supportive of organic farming, but at the same time bought more candy and chips, feeling more deserving and less guilty about indulging because of their societal contribution.
While the organic label merely designates a production process, studies have shown that consumers misinterpret the label, thinking products are healthier, safer, and more nutritious than non-organic counterparts. Studies have also shown that when presented with identical products, consumers will claim the organic-labelled product tastes better.
The language of labels is having a big influence on consumer food choices, but it also shows the power of language to substitute for real knowledge about food and basic nutrition and the implications of the choices consumers make.
Robert Giblin writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends. This column was originally published by the American Farm Bureau Federation.