Research shows that healthy food cues have little effect on food choice

A study at the University of Cambridge shows that independent health advertising and signals do not promote healthy food buying choices, but may conflict with advertising of sugary and fatty foods.

Research published in the magazine appetitefound that healthy messaging on products did not significantly affect purchasing choices, but cues related to pleasure or pleasure reduce healthy choices by 3%.

However, if healthy and unhealthy claims are made simultaneously, health messages can counteract unhealthy messages and help people make better food choices, they found.

The study, one of the largest of its kind, analyzed the choices of 1,200 people residing in the Netherlands using an online supermarket. The study participants were selected to be representative of age, gender and income, and were asked to make 18 food choices in the online supermarket, each time choosing one product out of six. Three of the products offered were unhealthy, and three of them were healthy.

While making their choices, participants were exposed to advertising banners promoting healthy and unhealthy foods and recipes. The researchers studied the impact of healthy eating cues on purchasing choices by looking at how participants responded to descriptions such as “low calories” (healthy) or “delicious” (less healthy) to influence their decisions. To compare independent claims on food products, unrelated ads for non-food products were also shown.

When healthy and unhealthy prompts are presented simultaneously, healthy stimuli have a protective effect in completely neutralizing unhealthy stimuli. The researchers suggest that this could work by setting off an “alarm bell” in participants to activate control processes.

Professor Lucia Reich from the University of Cambridge said: ‘The practical implications of our findings are twofold: the results cast doubt on the effectiveness of healthy target signals for promoting healthy food choices, but suggest that healthy primes can prevent lower health. Food choices by counteracting cues of pleasure through the interaction of competing messages.

The results were largely unaffected by factors including gender, hunger, dietary restrictions and BMI and suggest that health motivators alone are not sufficient to increase healthy food choices. When healthy messages are used to counteract unhealthy messages, they have a greater impact.

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