Healthy names of food products may deceive dieters

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A new study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina found that unhealthy food products that tout healthy names may dupe dieters into considering them as good-for-you items.

"The Impact of Product Name on Dieters' and Non-Dieters' Food Evaluations and Consumption" found that among more than 520 study participants, dieting tendency has no effect on product evaluations if foods carry a healthy name, such as salad, although dieters are more mindful if a product touts a name that is considered unhealthy, such as pasta.

The study authors — which included lead investigator Caglar Irmak, an assistant professor of marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business, along with Beth Vallen of Loyola University and Stefanie Rose Robinson, a doctoral student in marketing at the Moore School — concluded that this effect, which results in actual food consumption differences, "is explained by nondieters’ insensitivity to food cues, as well as dieters’ reliance on cues indicating a lack of healthfulness and tendency to employ heuristic information processing when evaluating foods."

"The fact that people's perceptions of healthfulness vary with the name of the food item isn't surprising," Irmak said. "What is interesting is that dieters, who try to eat healthy and care about what they eat, fell into these 'naming traps' more than nondieters who really don't care about healthy eating.

"These results should give dieters pause. The study shows that dieters base their food decisions on the name of the food item instead of the ingredients of the item," Irmak added. "As a result, they may eat more than what their dieting goals prescribe."

The study will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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