The research, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that ‘healthy’ consumers who strive to eat a wholesome and healthy diet may become so focused on trying to eat well that they become more likely to choose unhealthy foods that are labelled as healthy.
“Over time, dieters learn to focus on simply avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on product name,” explained the researchers, led by Caglar Irmak, assistant professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina.
The name of a food can provide consumers with important information about its nutritional value “for instance, an item identified as an apple is clearly a nutritious snack, while a cupcake is not,” said the researchers.
However, Irmak and his colleagues noted that things are not often this simple, as naming ambiguity is ‘prevalent’ in the food industry:
“Potato chips are labelled ‘veggie chips,’ milkshakes are sold as ‘smoothies,’ and sugary drinks have been re-positioned as ‘flavoured water,’ […] the names of the latter item in each pair might lead a consumer to infer undue nutritional superiority,” they said.
Such ambiguity in the naming of products may lead consumers to draw inferences regarding an items nutritional value that override product information, added Irmak and his team.
The new study investigated the influence of altering the name of a food item on consumers’ perceptions of healthfulness, taste, and consumption.
In the initial study consumers were presented with a pre-prepared mixture of vegetables, pasta, salami, and cheese, served on a bed of romaine lettuce. The dish was either labelled as ‘salad’ or ‘pasta.’
A sample of consumers then rated how healthful and nutritious the dish appeared to be on a scale of 1 to 7, and filled out a questionnaire on dietary habits, including how often they read nutrition labels. Based on the survey data the researchers then divided the group into health focused ‘dieters’ and ‘non-dieters’.
Irmak and his co-workers reported that when the meal was labelled as ‘pasta’, consumers focused on health (dieters) perceived the product as less healthy, with dieters awarding the dish a higher health score (4.7 compared to 4.0) if it was labelled as a salad rather than a pasta.
“Dieters likely assume that an item assigned an unhealthy name (for example, pasta) is less healthy than an item assigned a healthy name (for example, salad), and they do not spend time considering other product information that might impact their product evaluations,” said the authors.
In a second part of the research, Irmak and his team gave consumers samples of a chewy candy product, labelled as either ‘fruit chews’ or ‘candy chews.’
“Dieters perceived the item with an unhealthy name (candy chews) to be less healthful and less tasty than non-dieters,” wrote the researchers.
As a result, health focused ‘dieter’ consumers ate more (eight) of the candy sweets than the ‘non dieter’ group (six), when they were called ‘fruit chews.’
Irmak and his colleagues explained that ‘non-dieters’ do not learn to avoid foods based on names and therefore are more likely to dismiss cues that imply healthfulness, including name.
Source: Journal of Consumer Research
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1086/660044
“The Impact of Product Name on Dieters’ and Nondieters’ Food Evaluations and Consumption”
Authors: C. Irmak, B. Vallen, S.R. Robinson