“Healthy Choice”—Really? How Food Labels Sway Consumers

Which label are you looking at?

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever bought a bag of candy because the package claimed it had “all natural ingredients,” without checking to see how many calories or grams of sugar it had? You’re not the only one. Professor Ormsbee explains how food labeling captivates consumers.

Woman reading food label
Food labels on packaging are designed to attract consumers and initiate their buying impulse. Photo By Syda Productions / Shutterstock

Food Labels and Advertising

With a buffet of different dieting options available, sometimes we forget to look at the basics—like how to read a nutrition label. Knowing exactly what to look for on a food label can help us make good decisions about our food choices. However, it’s easy to get distracted by other food labels that are more alluring, but can also be misleading.

Deciphering nutrition labels can get confusing when you think about serving sizes; carbohydrate, fat, and protein numbers; and vitamin and mineral content. Just trying to sort out the small print of ingredients listed at the bottom of the label can take an advanced degree.

To complicate things further is the fad-based side of nutrition and overabundance of pseudo-experts that market very well in order to sell their products. The food industry is like any other industry, and it’s designed to make money. 

In fact, the food industry is among the top advertisers in the United States. In 2012, $116 million was spent on marketing for fresh fruits and vegetables

You might think that’s a lot of money on advertising, but the marketing for fast food topped out at over $4.6 billion the same year. Think about how many labels are on a box of food that try to convince you to buy and eat. 

Misleading Food Slogans

The labeling claims are designed to make you think the products are better for you. You are bombarded with slogans like Healthy Choice and Certified Organic.

Do you really need labels to convince you that a food is a healthy choice? Here’s an interesting fact: Data from the Food and Drug Administration shows that when the package has labels on the front, you are less likely to read the Nutrition Facts panel where the more reliable information can be found. 

It’s also difficult to stay away from foods with enticing descriptions. You’ve probably noticed this, too, when you eat out at a restaurant. 

You don’t often see menu items listed as simply fish or beef; instead, you see descriptive words like Chilean Seafood Filet or Omaha Tender Beef. Which one would you be more likely to buy? These evocative descriptions and names are rated as more appealing and tasty.

Without a doubt, big politics are involved in foods that are backed with serious money and marketed to you. The way to approach food, and particularly food labeling, is to be as educated as possible and to keep a healthy skepticism when reading labels and advertisements. 

It’s not hard to see that health-related food labeling will likely influence how you feel about certain foods and, ultimately, what you buy and eat. It’s probably best, though, to limit your purchases of packaged foods, especially ones with excessive health claims.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 321 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.