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Friday, December 8, 2023

Academics & Research

Professor releases food labeling marketing research results

A new study released by UH communications professor Temple Northrup found that health buzzwords seen on packaged food are generally erroneous and misleading.

Northup conducted the one-month investigation to study the effects that marketing terms have on consumers’ health purchasing decisions. Northup said that words meant to attract consumers to the healthiness of a product, including gluten-free, whole grain and antioxidant, are often deceitful.

“What’s fascinating is that these words fool people into thinking that things are healthier than they actually are,” Northup said. “No matter what buzzword was used —whether it was antioxidant or organic or all-natural — people always thought the products were healthier. Even on products that are clearly not healthy, like a soda.”

During the study, Northup looked at the labeling on several items of packaged food and administered an online survey to 318 students at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. He showed the items with and without the health buzzwords in question. According to Northup, participants often chose the food item that contain the healthier word, even if it was the same product.

Psychology senior Elaine Lozano said she is extremely conscious of her diet and she is not surprised with the study’s findings.

“That’s kind of one of the reason why I try to stick to a paleo diet,” Lozano said. “I feel like people get sidetracked by (words) like fat-free or sugar-free and they think ‘that’s easy’ instead of doing their homework.”

Math and biology senior Nancy Nguyen said she already has healthy eating habits and doesn’t even look at labeling on the food she buys.

“If someone told me that a product was healthier then I would probably buy it,” Nguyen said. “But if it is just labeling, I wouldn’t really pay attention to it.”

Northup said he’d be interested in expanding the study to an even wider participant range, but he expects that the results would be the same. He said he’d like to try new ways to “combat the food marketing.”

“If people are told ahead of time that food labeling is actually advertising and not based on nutrition and it’s not there to help you make a healthy choice, would that counteract the effect of those labels being present?”

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