Must Read: What are Food Labels You Can Trust

by Rachel Baker on October 4, 2013

This article came from the September/October 2013 edition of Eating Well…and….its a Must Read. The caveat is this article is very long.  However, if you care at all about what you are eating and label reading, you must read this. Also, if you have school-aged children, there are a few school science fair projects that could be developed from this article.

Last spring, Harvard Law School’s Food Law Society sponsored a conference called the Forum on Food Labeling. Mostly it dealt with the legality of labeling and how to regulate it, but, near the end, Harvard School of Public Health researcher Christina Roberto, Ph.D., a psychologist and epidemiologist who studies public health policies to reduce obesity, riveted the crowd with a series of studies on labels and how they wheedle their way into our perceptions and change our behavior. One such study used a chocolate bar as its divining rod. The researchers recruited 51 students, divided them into three groups, gave two groups a piece of the same chocolate bar, but framed the bar in different ways: the people in group 1 ate “a new health bar containing high levels of protein, vitamins and fiber and no artificial sweeteners,” the people in group 2 ate “a chocolate bar that is very tasty and yummy with a chocolate raspberry core” and the people in group 3 were the controls, receiving no bar. Subjects filled out surveys on how the bars tasted, how healthy they were and how hungry they felt before and after the snack.

The people who ate a “healthy” bar later reported being hungrier than those who ate a “tasty” bar, and even hungrier than those in the control group who ate nothing. So the researchers took this work one step deeper. They gave 62 different subjects a quarter-slice of bread, framed as either “nutritious, low-fat and full of vitamins” or “tasty, with a thick crust and soft center.” The subjects rated how healthy their bread was, after which they left the room and the experimenter told them the study was over.

Right afterward, the experimenters put the subjects in another room for an ostensibly unrelated study, filling out a questionnaire about their study habits. There were bowls of large pretzels on the table and the researchers said they were left over from another study and the participants could grab a few while answering the questions. But, as I’m sure you can guess, the original study had never ended. The subjects snacked as they filled out the form, and after they left, the researchers counted and weighed the remaining pretzels to see how much they ate.

Turns out, subjects who got the “healthy” bread ate significantly more pretzels later on than those who ate the “tasty” bread (exactly the same bread). The only difference? The perception, the claims.

“These labels influence your perception of hunger, and that, in turn, leads to how much you’re actually eating,” Roberto said at the conference. “So this is a chain that’s really impacting consumer behavior.”

For the print version:

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