The Psychology of Food Labeling: Read before you feed

“50% less fat!” states the box of cookies on the shelf of my local supermarket.

“High fiber” says the box next to it.

While another box asserts “Made with goji berries!”

Have you ever paid attention to the bold claims splashed on the labels of food packaging in a blatant attempt to persuade us to buy them?  And how often we purchase these items with little deliberation because we think we are choosing a healthier option?

Society’s increasing preoccupation with health and wellness has created a heightened awareness of sensible and healthy eating ideals.  When people shop, they may now focus more on foods that are perceived as having reduced fat, sugar and sodium, as well as on foods that are organic or gluten-free.  Food companies are aware of this and market their products through “healthy” food labeling to cater to these ideals in the hopes of making them more attractive and competitive. Ironically, “healthy” food labeling can actually lead to unhealthy eating habits, such as excessive caloric intake of up to 35%1!

Let’s look at some common food labeling and how psychological mechanisms can produce paradoxical eating behaviors.

1. The “low fat/low calorie” label


When people see this label, the first assumption is that  there’s a low probability of overeating the particular food product. This assumption combined with the social acceptability of eating low fat/low calorie food triggers two psychological processes that lead to excessive intake. Firstly, cognitive dis-inhibition occurs—meaning that our mind feels less restricted about eating the food because we feel that it’s “okay.”  Secondly, the perception of the food product’s low fat/low calorie characteristic leads to lower subjective feelings of satiation—leaving us wanting to consume more2.

So the next time you’re tempted to buy a pack of 100 calorie cookies, remember that you’re probably going to feel like you have to eat another five packs just to feel full.

2. The “organic” label


Studies show that people perceive food products labeled organic as having less calories, having a better nutritional profile than non-organic products, and tasting lower in fat and higher in fiber3. This is a common misperception, however, as “organic” describes the method of food production, not its nutritional profile. An organic muffin could have just as many, if not more calories than a non-organic muffin!

3. The “reduced sodium” label


Ever since research has shown that high sodium intake can lead to hypertension, many people have taken precautions to lower their salt intake4 . Food manufacturers have indeed responded to the demand for low sodium goods and market them as such in hopes of higher profits. However, the “reduced sodium” label has a negative effect on taste perception, so people end up adding their own salt upon consumption5, in turn defeating the health enhancing purpose of the product!

So how do we make healthy food choices given the paradoxical psychological effects of “healthy” food labeling?

Read the Nutrition Facts on packaged foods. Pay more attention to the nutritional information on food packages than just the marketing labels at the front, as they reveal a lot more about the contents of the product.  Compare the information with that of similar products – you might be surprised at what you discover.  For example, cereals that market themselves as low fat and high fiber may seem healthy, but they may still be packed with lots of sugar!

Better yet, as Lesley Stoyan of Daily Apple stated at the Live Well to Learn Well conference at Hart House last week, “eat without a label.” In other words, choose whole foods such as meat, chicken, fish and fruits and vegetables that have more complete nutritional profiles more often than processed foods.

So what’s been your experience in trying to eat healthier?



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