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Fad Nutrition Gives Consumers a Fake Sense of Health

Cool gluten-free french fries, consumer.

by Michael Byrne
Jun 14 2014, 7:43pm
Image: Brent Moore/Creative Commons

The last line of intellectual defense within the generally fucked world of fad nutrition, from gluten-free to antioxidant-rich, is that, even if the science doesn't validate the fad's claims and even if the anecdotes fall apart under scrutiny, the given fad has to be at least better than eating "normally." It might not be a health miracle but, hey, it's something, right? Part of that line of reasoning is the mistaken belief, pushed enthusiastically by "natural" foods marketers and the ever-growing army of nutrition would-be experts, that the common diet is bereft of nutrients and healthfulness generally.

So, all it really takes is a shred of plausibility to drive someone into the arms of the arms of nutritionism, what Guardian columnist/author/doctor Ben Goldacre describes as a realm where (often very thin) observational data gets distorted into interventionist claims: we saw a general thing, now do this specific thing. Behind your favorite popular nutrition claims find, "cherry-picking data, selecting only papers that support their claims, ignoring the counterveiling evidence; simply invent[ing] 'research' or talk[ing] about “studies” that don’t exist."

But still, while it may not meet such high standards of rigor, but what's the real harm in buying the gluten-free product?

Well, besides perpetuating scientific distortions and boosting the incomes of food creeps, there is also the very real possibility that buying gluten-free or buying according to other popular myths, like antioxidants slaying cancer, is actually depriving consumers of the stuff that they do need for good health. This is according to a study out this week from the University of Houston describing how nutritionist marketing drives false senses of overall healthfulness in consumers. These falses senses, coupled with ignorance as to the real-world meanings behind nutritional panel information, may actually be contributing to America's obesity epidemic, as shrewd marketers get better and better about targeting regular old junk food according to prevailing nutrition hype. In other words, going gluten-free and loading up on anitoxidants gives a pass on real positive diet choices.

“Saying Cherry 7-Up contains antioxidants is misleading," said Temple Northrup, the study's lead investigator, in a UH press release. "Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they’re not.” 7-Up's an easy example, but the study's examination of "trigger words," terms that tend to ascribe healthfulness to products in the minds of consumers, extended to Annie’s Bunny Fruit Snacks and Apple Sauce ("organic"), Chef Boyardee Beefaroni ("whole grain"), Smuckers Peanut Butter ("all natural"), Tostitos ("all natural"), and Chocolate Cheerios ("heart healthy"), among others. 

The above terms were examined for their "priming" effects on the minds of consumers, or how a simple word or term might open up an entire catalog of associations. “For example, if I gave you the word ‘doctor,’ not only ‘doctor’ would be accessible in your mind, now all these other things would be accessible in your mind:  ‘nurse,’ ‘stethoscope,’ etc.,” Northup said. “What happens when these words become accessible, they tend to influence or bias your frame of mind and how you evaluate something.”

(The antioxidant 7up was the subject of a class action lawsuit questioning the merits of the soda-maker's health claims, and the product has since been retired. It would be nice if the plaintiff, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, extended its quest to less obvious targets.) 

Once primed, the brain will continue to be influenced by those associations even without explicit prompting. This was demonstrated in an online survey of 300 some participants asked to rate the relative healthfulness of different products with and without the aforementioned buzz terms. Quite reliably, the labeled items were rated as more healthy (they weren't, obviously), even when participants had access to proper FDA nutrition labels.  

“Food marketers say there are nutritional labels, so people can find out what’s healthy and what’s not,” Northrup said. “Findings from this research study indicate people aren’t very good at reading nutritional labels even in situations where they are choosing between salmon and Spam. Approximately 20 percent picked Spam as the healthier option over salmon.” The study itself concludes, "while many individuals may be trying to increase the health of their diets, food marketers are taking advantage of them by misleading those consumers with deceptive labeling." 

That's just the thing: while proponents of, say, GMO labeling argue that "it's just giving consumers more information," labeling itself is a claim of healthfulness or unhealthiness. Have no doubt that if you were to take some GMO-free orange soda and line it up next to a bottle of unlabled seltzer water, the results would be just as bleak.