The new study data, published in Appetite, reveals that consumers believe that foods labelled as 'low fat' are healthier and better tasting than 'regular' versions of the same food, while also suggesting that caloric labelling had little effect on perceptions.
Led by Professor Daria Ebneter from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, the researchers examined the role of low-fat claims and caloric information on food intake, calorie estimates, and health attributions. The team found that neither fat content labelling nor caloric information had a significant effect on food intake, but revealed that fat labelling "may be more powerful than caloric information as a determinant of health attributions."
"Participants significantly underestimated the calorie content of low-fat-labelled foods and attributed greater health value to these foods," explained Ebneter and her team - adding that while differences in food intakes did not reach significance, participants did endorse more positive health attributions for low-fat-labelled candy than for regular-labelled candy, independent of caloric information.
"Participants also rated low-fat-labelled candy as significantly better tasting when they had caloric information available," said the authors.
"The present study examined whether low-fat labelling would increase intake, and whether the display of calorie content would attenuate this effect, reducing the 'health halo' effect of low-fat labelling that has been observed in previous studies," explained Ebneter and her colleagues.
To achieve this the US-based scientists examined whether low-fat labelling and caloric information had an effect on food intake, calorie estimates, taste preference, and health perceptions using a sample of 175 female participants who were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions.
"A 2 × 2 between subjects factorial design was used in which the fat content label and caloric information of chocolate candy was manipulated," they noted.
"While participants in the current study consumed slightly more candy when they believed they were eating low-fat chocolate candy rather than regular candy, this difference did not reach statistical significance," the authors said - adding that despite any significant difference in intakes the participants did significantly underestimate the calorie content of candy. that was labelled as 'low-fat'.
"Participants who were unaware of the calorie content underestimated the energy content of supposedly low-fat M&M’s by an average of 71 calories, whereas they overestimated the caloric value of regular M&M’s by an average of 38 calories," the team revealed.
The study also found that participants rated low-fat-labelled candy as significantly better tasting and healthier when they had caloric information available.
"Interestingly, knowledge of the actual calorie content did not affect health attributions, suggesting that fat content may be a more powerful determinant of health attributions than calorie content," said Ebneter and her team.
Volume 68, Pages 92–97, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.04.023
"Is less always more? The effects of low-fat labeling and caloric information on food intake, calorie estimates, taste preference, and health attributions"
Authors: Daria S. Ebneter, Janet D. Latner, Claudio R. Nigg