Ordinary Foods, Extraordinary Health Claims
"Mayonnaise helps protect women from strokes."
"Eating two servings of raisins a day may help lower the risk of colon cancer."
"…scientists are currently studying links between honey consumption and athletic performance."
"…compounds present in…sunflower seeds…have been shown to offer…protection against heart disease and cancer, as well as a role in memory and cognitive function."
No, I'm not making any of these up. They are just a few of the bits of information that have crossed my desk in the form of press releases and other promotional materials—in much more unabashed fashion than the government-approved "as part of a balanced diet" health claims you see on cereal boxes and the like.
If you ate a single serving of the mayonnaise, raisins, honey, and sunflower seeds on a daily basis, you'd be downing 550 calories from those foods alone.
Does Health Dictate the Shopping List?
"It quickly gets very silly, this message of, 'this much on a daily basis will do whatever,'" says Jeanne Goldberg, PhD, director of the Center on Nutrition Communication at Tufts University.
But does it work? Do people buy x food because of the message that it can prevent y disease? It appears they do—at least to some degree.
"The primary determinant of food selection is taste," says Dr. Goldberg. Typically, cost is second, followed by convenience. But people respond erratically. "'Oh, wow,'" she mimics hypothetically. "'This is full of soy. I just read an article on the benefits of soy in the doctor's office, so I'll try it.' If they don't like it, they don't buy it again."
But the health-benefit angle has at least pushed them to give it a shot, especially, Dr. Goldberg says, if they're worried about getting cancer or some other disease.
Cashing In on Our Health Concerns
Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food & Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, agrees that people who are particularly concerned about their health make an easy target.
"Most people don't make lifestyle changes unless there's a critical event, a ]]>heart attack]]> , or someone you went to high school with 30 years ago looks great, while you look like hell." says Wansink.
But even then, he says, the change in eating behavior is often "very, very temporary. So the difference in sales from these [promotional efforts] is just a really short-term blip, if at all."
However, a short-term blip is just fine for industry, says Marion Nestle, PhD, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and an expert in food marketing and promotion.
"The pressure…is all for immediate results," she explains. Ad agencies and public relations agencies "have to demonstrate blips in sales. As far as I can tell." She adds, selling foods for their perceived disease-prevention benefits "works really well" in that regard.
The Case of Ketchup
"The food industry spends roughly $33 billion a year marketing foods," Dr. Nestle points out. "If [pitching disease-prevention benefits] didn't have an effect, they wouldn't do it. They're not spending that money out of social service."
By way of example, she relates "there was one ad in the New York Times magazine for Heinz ketchup with ]]>lycopene]]> [a chemical in tomatoes that in some preliminary research has been associated with a reduced risk for certain cancers]. It got a significant blip (in sales)."
"If you don't like ketchup, you're not going to try it," she acknowledges. "But what if you do? You put more on your foods; you slather it on."
Moreover, adds Wansink, you might be more inclined to choose Heinz ketchup over other brands. That's the one you connect with the health benefit. And if you already buy Heinz, he says, it makes you feel good about what you're doing, thereby strengthening brand loyalty.
But just how do these food/disease messages, these overstatements about the power of single foods to act as preventative drugs, make their way to the public? How can a company get away with "mayonnaise helps protect women from strokes" or "raisins...lower the risk of colon cancer"?
It happens all the time, Dr. Wansink says. A researcher will get a call from someone [in the food industry] asking, "Do you suppose you can do a study that shows blah, blah, blah?" In other words, he notes, "they're saying in advance, 'here's what we want the results to be.'" They're not really testing any hypothesis.
"The industry will start with people who have a certain amount of credibility," he explains. "Those people say, 'No.' Then the industry keeps dropping down until they find someone who'll do it. Maybe that person is low in research grants. So industry will say, 'We'll give you more money to do more of your own research if you get the result we want.'"
A Little Stretching of the Truth
What then often happens, whether industry actually pays for a study or not, is that the research results get exaggerated and sent to the press in exaggerated fashion, where they then get dispensed to the public. For instance, a study that linked diets high in vitamin E to a reduced risk for ]]>stroke]]> (but didn't prove a connection) was translated to "Mayonnaise Helps Protect Women from Strokes" by the Atlanta-based Association for Dressings and Sauces because mayonnaise is a relatively concentrated source of vitamin E. (Eating the right amount of calories to remain slim is known to protect against strokes. One tablespoon of mayonnaise contains 100 calories.)
Similarly, the fact that a half cup of raisins daily (225 calories' worth) helped speed food and waste through the digestive tract in 16 people became "two servings a day may help lower the risk of colon cancer" at the hands of the California Raisin Marketing Board.
So the next time you're presented with the amazing benefits of a food product, take it with a grain of salt.
American Dietetic Association
The Nutrition Source
Harvard School of Public Health
Connors M, Bisogni CA, Sobal J, Devine CM. Managing values in personal food systems. Appetite. 2001;36:189-200.
Williams P. Consumer understanding and use of health claims for foods. Nutr Rev. 2005;63:256-264.
Last reviewed May 2009 by ]]>Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD]]>
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