‘Healthy’ food marketing may lead to weight gain

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 27th May 2013

Foods marketed as ‘healthier’ are seen by consumers as a “licence to overeat” and may actually lead to weight gain, according to interim results of a new study from the University of Ulster in the UK.

The research, which was funded by Irish food safety and nutrition advocacy group SafeFood and published in the International Journal of Obesity, indicates that products with health and nutrition claims such as ‘low fat’ and ‘reduced fat’ may be contributing to people eating larger than recommended portions. It also indicates that many people assume that these foods with certain health claims are lower in calories than they actually are.

The aim of the study, which was conducted with over 180 adults in Ireland who had a range of body weights, was to compare what people thought the calorie content of food was and reasonable portion sizes of ‘healthier’ and ‘standard’ foods.

“There has been a huge increase in the number of food products with nutrition and health claims sold over the last 20 years, but we also know that the population’s weight has continued to increase. We commissioned this research to explore people’s understanding of these products given their popularity,” said Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director, Human Health and Nutrition at SafeFood.

Survey volunteers were shown three pairs of food – one marketed as ‘healthier’ and an equivalent ‘standard’ product. They were then asked to measure a recommended portion of each of these foods. They were also asked to rate how guilty they would feel if they ate what they perceived to be an appropriate portion.

The results showed the perceived appropriate portion sizes chosen by the survey volunteers was 28 to 71 per cent larger than the recommended portion size on the label for five out of the six foods.

“The research shows that these foods are viewed by some consumers as a license to overeat,” Dr Foley-Nolan said. “However, in the case of many products, the fat that is removed in the ‘healthier’ product is replaced by other ingredients, such as sugar, and the calorie savings are small. Consumers need to relook at their portion sizes, as any benefit they might get from these ‘healthier’ processed foods could be undone by just how much of them they are eating,” she said.

The authors said the study supports what is described by many as the ‘health halo effect’, that is, consumers perceive the products to be healthier and to have less calories than the ‘standard’ version of the food.

“They see them as representing the less guilty option and so eat more of them. Further education on what is a healthy portion size is warranted to overcome these misconceptions,” said Professor Barbara Livingston, Principal researcher at the University of Ulster.