Organic. All natural. High protein. Such tantalizing words seem to adorn every package at the grocery store. Even Lucky Charms, a cereal that’s largely dyed candy, promises that it has “whole grains” and is “gluten free” right beside the sugary sparkle “now with magical unicorn marshmallows!”
Those healthy-feeling words are there for a reason: They work! According to a new series of studies done by Rotterdam School of Management and Vanderbilt University, the promises we see on cereal boxes–and likely most other packages at the grocery store–often make us perceive the product as healthier, even if there’s no correlation between these claims and a food’s actual nutritional value.
“We picked [breakfast cereals] because it’s a category with a ton of claims being displayed,” says Quentin André, an assistant professor of marketing at Rotterdam School of Management.
Breakfast cereals have used “health washing” for decades. Since the midcentury, cereal manufacturers have fortified their recipes with vitamins and extra fiber as a means to gloss over massive amounts of added sugars. In 1969, Jean Mayer, a Harvard professor of nutrition, went so far as to call cereals “sugar-coated vitamin pills.” That marketing game continues today. Of 633 breakfast cereals the research team analyzed, 460–or over 70%–featured a health or nutrition claim. According to the researchers, these claims can be divided into two primary categories: natural versus scientific. A natural claim might be “wholesome” or “organic,” while a scientific claim might be “low fat” or “high protein.”
To test the effectiveness of different types of health washing, the research team worked with the market research group PRS In Vivo to create five faux brands of cornflakes–each with a different claim on the front. (There was no cereal inside–the testing was done with online subjects, not in a store.) The claims on the front of the boxes didn’t “signal anything significantly healthy about the food,” says André. “Low sugar or fat are not associated with a higher level of healthiness, because it’s typical to remove fat and add more sugar or vice versa.” Indeed, food manufacturers follow a well-reported playbook to deploy unhealthy levels of salt, sugar, or fat in an ever-changing ratio to keep their foods tasty, even when reformulated in response to regulators or fad diets.
The researchers tasked over 600 people with choosing the best box, for either dieting or pure eating pleasure. The results of their test with consumers were stomach churning. “Natural claims were stronger drivers of choice than scientific claims,” says André. Those natural claims, like “wholesome” or “organic” created a halo effect over the cereal. While people did believe a low-fat cereal might help them lose weight, natural claims like “organic” went even further to win customers over. “People think organic means there’s less fat in it, less sugar, and they have association that extends beyond the actual meaning of the food,” says André. “But organic doesn’t mean the food is healthier for you. Just that it’s organic.”
Meanwhile, scientific claims were effective in a different way–and often to a smaller subset of people. If you have celiac disease, “gluten free” might imply healthiness to you but not someone who could eat wheat without repercussions. Similarly, “high protein” could make a food appear healthy to people focused on muscle growth but not others.
So what should we do when facing packaging that’s been proven to delude our way of thinking? Educating yourself about nutrition probably isn’t enough. “From what we know now, everyone is equally susceptible to the front of a box,” says André. Instead, he suggests you flip the box over. Don’t even read the entire nutrition facts. Just check the calorie count. “In general, if you’re trying to lose weight or stay thin, calorie count is what matters,” he says. “And it’s a much simpler thing to digest for people than the complete nutritional profile.”