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STUDY: People Eat Bigger Portion Sizes When The Food Is Labeled ‘Healthy’

By Tara Culp-Ressler on May 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm

"STUDY: People Eat Bigger Portion Sizes When The Food Is Labeled ‘Healthy’"

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(Credit: FoodMag)

People assume they can eat larger portion sizes of foods labeled “healthy,” even when those foods actually have the same amount of calories as the “non-healthy” versions, according to the results from a new study. The research project was an attempt to assess whether food companies’ marketing efforts to brand their products as healthier have an impact on consumer choices.

Researchers asked 186 adults to determine the appropriate portion sizes of both “healthy” and regular brands of different foods. The participants tended to serve themselves larger portions of the “healthy” food, and they also tended to underestimate the amount of calories that were actually in it. The study’s researchers attribute these behaviors to the effective marketing strategies that the food industry uses to convince people that even processed foods aren’t so bad if they’re being touted as healthier options:

“People think (healthier food) is lower in calories,” said Pierre Chandon, a marketing professor at the INSEAD Social Science Research Center in France, and they “tend to consume more of it.”

That misconception can lead to people eating larger portion sizes of so-called healthy foods, and therefore more calories.

“Foods are marketed as being healthier for a reason, because food producers believe, and they correctly believe, that those labels will influence us to eat their products and perhaps eat more of their products,” said Dr. Cliodhna Foley Nolan, the director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood, a government agency in Ireland.

The new study builds upon previous research that found that green labeling is “coded” as healthier — so when a product is marketed in green packaging, Americans tend to assume it has fewer calories, even if it’s a product like a candy bar.

As Americans continue to grapple with an ongoing obesity epidemic, fast food companies in the United States have attempted to use these type of marketing tactics in order to rebrand themselves as healthier choices Popular chains like McDonald’s, Panda Express, Taco Bell, and Coca-Cola have all attempted to improve their national image by offering up “healthy” options — even though they haven’t actually changed much about the actual nutritional content of their products.

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