Healthy Whole Grains, Unhealthy Labels

Who wants to eat healthy? Roughly nine out of ten of American adults. And at the top of their list for what’s healthy is fiber and whole grains. But somehow, we feel no surprise learning that food labels about healthy whole grains are leaving consumers confused.

Because the point of health claims on food labels is not enlightenment. Nope. Believe it or not, it’s all about selling more food. Thus we eat more. All in the service of healthy eating.

An Experiment and a Label Test

Parke Wilde and colleagues published their work in Public Health Nutrition this week. Their research had two parts. First they conducted a discrete choice experiment. They asked subjects to choose the healthiest food products from the labels on different pairs of products. In each case, the sugar, salt, and whole grains in the product varied. People in this experiment had a tough time picking the healthier product. Depending upon the product, as few as 29 percent or as many as 47 percent got it wrong.

The second part of this work was a test of label comprehension. Using actual product labels, researchers conducted a standard test of how well consumers could understand the labeling for whole grains. Again, it didn’t go to well. For products with mostly refined grains, roughly half of the subjects thought those products had more whole grains. For a product with mostly whole grains, 17 percent of subjects misunderstood that fact.

In sum, consumers really want to buy whole grain products. But food labels don’t help them much in figuring out which products might be best.

First Taste and Price, Then Health

If you want to understand why, keep in mind that consumers balance many factors when they make choices. Sure, they say they want to eat healthy. But in fact, taste and price usually drive choices even more. So the goal of health claims on a label is to reassure a consumer that the product they really want based on taste and price is a healthy enough option. They can feel good about buying it. Actual health benefits are kind of beside the point.

This is why we have our doubts about health claims for food products. They’re good for sales. For health and enlightenment? Not so much.

Click here for the study, here and here for further reporting on it.

Sheaf of Grain, painting by Franz Marc / WikiArt

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August 12, 2020