Trying to eat healthy? Read those nutrition labels carefully

January 20, 2012

People who made New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight might also want to brush up on their math skills.

In a new study, marketing professor Donald Lichtenstein found that on packaged food products in the United States can lead even the most health-conscious consumers astray, if they don’t “do the math.”

While the “Nutrition Facts” printed on food labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, companies are given some freedom to present food packages as a single serving or as smaller serving sizes within a package, according to Lichtenstein, chair of the Leeds School marketing department. Through this practice, referred to in the study by Lichtenstein and his colleagues as “health framing,” companies can present smaller serving sizes so that a food’s negative nutrients -- calories and fat -- on a nutrition label show up as a lower number per serving.

“The take-away message is when you look at the calories per serving on a candy bar or a can of soup at the grocery store, be sure to look at the serving size too,” Lichtenstein said. “Surprisingly, what we found was those people who are health conscious and are concerned about nutrition fall prey to health framing effects more frequently.

“The problem comes when people do pay attention, but they only pay attention to the calorie information and not the serving size,” Lichtenstein said. “And that’s what we find in study after study. Those consumers who are more health conscious pay attention to the calorie information, but they don’t take the extra step to look at the serving size. So they are duped, if you will, by a health framing effect.”

This is where the math part comes in. For example, if a candy bar is 2 ounces and has 200 calories for a whole bar, it might be labeled as one serving or two servings. If the manufacturer decides to make the serving size of 1 ounce it cuts the calories per serving in half.

“We found that many consumers only pay attention to the calorie information and don’t look to see exactly what the serving size is,” he said. “When you present a smaller serving size, it cuts down the calories per serving, which makes consumers feel less guilty about consuming the product, and that affects not only their purchase intentions, but actual choice."

To ensure more informed consumer choices, Lichtenstein recommends reducing the latitude manufacturers have in setting serving sizes, requiring manufacturers to report nutrient information on a per unit weight basis -- calories per ounce -- and increasing consumer education about manufacturer use of health framing.

Without any changes to policy, Lichtenstein said, consumers need to put the onus on themselves when it comes to food labels.

“In the absence of any changes, public policy officials should encourage consumers to calculate negative nutrients for a reasonable serving size, so they know the health benefits and detriments of the foods they eat,” Lichtenstein said.

Explore further: Consumers don't pay as much attention to nutrition fact labels as they think

Related Stories

Consumers don't pay as much attention to nutrition fact labels as they think

October 24, 2011
Nutrition Facts labels have been used for decades on many food products. Are these labels read in detail by consumers when making purchases? Do people read only certain portions of the labels? According to a new study published ...

Dieters duped by food names according to study

June 8, 2011
What’s in a name? Plenty, according to a University of South Carolina study in the Journal of Consumer Research that found that dieters eager to make good food choices are more at risk of being misled by food names than ...

Recommended for you

Amber-tinted glasses may provide relief for insomnia

December 15, 2017
How do you unwind before bedtime? If your answer involves Facebook and Netflix, you are actively reducing your chance of a good night's sleep. And you are not alone: 90 percent of Americans use light-emitting electronic devices, ...

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

Office work can be a pain in the neck

December 15, 2017
Neck pain is a common condition among office workers, but regular workplace exercises can prevent and reduce it, a University of Queensland study has found.

Regular takeaways linked to kids' heart disease and diabetes risk factors

December 14, 2017
Kids who regularly eat take-away meals may be boosting their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, suggests research published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Simulation model finds Cure Violence program and targeted policing curb urban violence

December 14, 2017
When communities and police work together to deter urban violence, they can achieve better outcomes with fewer resources than when each works in isolation, a simulation model created by researchers at the UC Davis Violence ...

One in five patients report discrimination in health care

December 14, 2017
Almost one in five older patients with a chronic disease reported experiencing health care discrimination of one type or another in a large national survey that asked about their daily experiences of discrimination between ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.