Have you been a victim of health washing?

© Nsilcock | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Nsilcock | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Most people think they’re pretty savvy when it comes to making smart food choices.  Food companies and fast food chains, though,  may use bait and switch practices – getting patrons in the door with the lure of healthy eats only to offer sodium- and sugar-laden options. But even when we’re really determined to make enlightened choices, the truth is it’s easier than you think to get hoodwinked into choosing the opposite of what we’re looking for.

According to accumulating research, it’s all in the name.

A University of South Carolina study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that we’re easily fooled when we evaluate the nutritional value of a dish based on its name.

Call it the muffin trap.

While these baked goods tend to have more fat, sugar and calories than a cupcake or a doughnut, they’ve had a health halo bestowed on them by virtue of their name.

And this halo goes far beyond muffins, according to accumulating research.  In the study, scientists conducted four tests to determine the effect that the changing the name of a food had on subjects’ perception of its healthfulness. Both dieters and non-dieters were included so that any differences between the groups could also be assessed. The researchers  also looked at whether subjects were more likely to choose a dish based on name alone.

Take this dish offered at the U.S. eatery Romano’s Macaroni Grill as an example: Cited by researchers in the study, the Chicken Florentine Salad contains orzo pasta, grilled chicken, fresh spinach, diced tomatoes, and capers and supplies 900 calories and 60 grams of fat.

The restaurant has it listed  in the salad section, but at what impact? When you read the study results, you may see why.

In one of the tests in the study, two different dishes with identical ingredients were presented, one as a daily salad special and the other as a daily pasta special. Both dieters and non-dieters gave better health ratings to dishes called salad.

But when the same ingredients were labelled as a pasta dish, the dieters rated the options as being even less healthy than did the non-dieters.

Any guesses as to why dieters are more likely to be duped? The researchers found that the dieters may not even contemplate the menu item if it’s listed as a pasta offering. But hey, aren’t salads rabbit food – or isn’t that what dieters believe? Calling something a salad makes dieters think of lots of low calorie veggies while a pasta dish sounds as though it would contain many more calories- something dieters would be concerned with. But the truth is, in some cases, that salads with assorted ingredients can be anything but low calorie fare

Not surprisingly, in another test, identical candies, labeled as either “fruit chews” or “candy chews,”  were also perceived as having different health rankings. Say something has fruit in it and again, it’s thought to be a more wholesome option.

Marketers are trying to play to this propensity on supermarket shelves all around us. Instead of potato chips, you might be presented with veggie chips, milk shakes have become smoothies and sugary drinks are branded as flavoured water. While you may pass on regular French fries, sweet potato fries are frequently given a green light. Sure, the orange veggie offers more nutrients but what about the fact that they’re deep fried?

So how can the average consumer tell what’s health washing and what’s healthy?  Later this week, I’ll post  some signs to look for in a name.

Do you have any examples of health washing to share? Please post them in the comment section.

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Categories: Research Roundup, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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