By Mark Faries, PhD

Howdy, I’m Dr. Mark Faries and we are here separating lifestyle medicine fact from fiction.

When at the grocery store, have you noticed how many product labels and packages now feature health related buzzwords? We’ve got to ask if they are fact or fiction.

Would you call a chocolate cereal good for your health if it said “all natural” on the box? Well, a recent study found that participants rated everything from chocolate cereal to soda and chips as more healthful when the packaging contained buzzwords such as: “Heart Healthy,” “Antioxidant,” and “All Natural.”

How we determine what’s healthful based on the label or container can be a tricky, often futile, effort. It’s no secret that food marketers use buzzwords to steer our decisions.

The psychology behind the effectiveness of buzzwords is rooted in priming us to think a certain way. So if we see “all natural,” our minds are now immediately and subconsciously primed to see that product in a natural, healthful way. It makes our decision easy and quick, with little mental effort.

Dr. Temple Northup, of the University of Houston, describes this priming effect. “Srull and Wyer (a study in 1979) gave participants four words—Sally, He, Hit, and Kicked. They were asked to use three of these words to complete a sentence, such as “He Kicked Sally.” Only violent sentences could be created from the words given. That act of creating violent sentences was sufficient to trigger the concept of violence in the participants’ minds. Later, participants were asked to evaluate an ambiguously described person or event. The participants who had to create the violent sentences interpreted the target with increased hostility.”

The lesson learned here is that we can be lead down a path to thinking a particular way or making certain conclusions based on messages that catch our attention and stick in our heads.

And let’s face it, we need to think more when we shop for foods and never depend on what buzzwords are printed on the box, can, bag, jar, or other packaging. We need to dig into the nutrition label and come to a decision ourselves, not letting the food marketers and our subconscious minds make the decision for us.

Here are some tips on reading food labels and packaging:

-Don’t be fooled by eye-catching buzzwords on the front of the packaging.
-Focus on the Nutrition Facts label.
-Evaluate the first ingredient on the list because that’s the one that’s present in the largest quantity.
-Avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated oil and try to avoid those with high fructose corn syrup.
-Avoid foods with long ingredient lists because there likely are things included that you’re body doesn’t need or does not respond well to.
-Beware of whole grain imposters—foods that actually contain little whole grains. Look for at least two grams per serving of whole grains.

The research I’ve cited and other studies have found that people have a general ignorance in understanding nutrition and food labels. Don’t be one of them! This means that our verdict on whether or not health buzzwords on food labels are misleading demands clarification. And now you have the tools to help you make a more educated decision instead of being steered by these health buzzwords.

Truth, Lies and Packaging. Northrup T (2014). Food Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal. Volume 3, Issue 1.

Category accessibility and impression formation. Higgins ET, Rholes WS, Jones CR (1977). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 13, 141–154.

The role of category accessibility in the interpretation of information about persons: Some determinants and implications. Srull TK, Wyer RS (1979) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 37(10) 1660-1672.

Mark D. Faries, PhD

Mark has a PhD in Behavioral Health and an MS in Exercise Physiology. He is an Associate Professor and State Extension Health Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and has developed lifestyle medicine curriculum and advocacy. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, is founder of Lone Star Lifestyle Medicine for Texas and is founder of FitnessPudding.com.

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