Food Health Claims: Bad for Your Health

Food health claims have a way of turning out badly for everyone, except maybe food marketers. Yesterday’s Wonder Bread, building strong bodies 12 ways, is today’s poster child for a high-glycemic food to be avoided, presently unavailable in the U.S. because the owner of this venerable trademark, Hostess, declared bankruptcy in 2012.Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies

At the turn of the century, Primo Beer was marketed in Hawaii for its health benefits. Those ads have come and gone. But proving that everything old is new again, you can see the hand of health marketers in stories surfacing recently about the “surprising health benefits of beer.” Careful health writers add the caveat “when enjoyed in moderation” to such stories.

That’s just the problem with health claims used to market food and drink. While our rational selves are occupied with these fascinating health benefits, our hedonistic selves get permission to consume a bit more of these healthy foods and drinks. Moderation doesn’t really surface in food marketing. This is how healthy-halo foods, like low-fat yogurt, have become a growing source of added sugar in the American diet. And soft drinks, which are contributing a shrinking amount of sugar to our diet, consume the energy of public health advocates while low-fat yogurt gets a free pass.

A couple of recent studies document this effect. Mary McCann and colleagues published a study in the June issue of Appetite, showing that foods labeled as low fat and low calorie led to subjects, especially males and those with higher BMIs, to consume more calories.

Likewise,  G.P. Faulkner and colleagues found that labeling a food as “reduced fat” led subjects to feel less guilt about consuming them, to underestimate their calories, and to choose larger portion sizes.

Dr. Cliodhana Foley Nolan is Director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood, an Irish government agency that commissioned some of this research. She commented:

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.

Thus we can travel a road to bad health paved with health claims. Maybe good food is better than efficacious food.

Click here to read more in Pacific Standard, click here to access the McCann study, and click here to access the Faulkner study.

The Board of Health, early 20th century Primo Beer advertisng image © UH Manoa Library / flickr

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