What’s in a label? The relationship between nutritional content and food packaging.

I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how nutrition marketing influences the way we as consumers perceive a product (Exhibits A, B, and C). Even so, I hadn’t devoted much time to researching how nutrition and health marketing relates to the actual nutritional content of the food. I started to wonder if there was a relationship between how aggressively a product is marketed and how healthy the product truly is.

I planned a trip to the local supermarket to do some window shopping. My idea was to look at the front labels of packaged food items, record all of the health/nutrition marketing claims I could see, and record the food’s content of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. I hoped to be able to find some trend between the frequency and types of health/nutrition marketing used and the actual nutritional content of the food. I was particularly interested in the labeling of foods that are meant to stand in as a full meal, so I surveyed a number of frozen dinners.

I was strangely disappointed to find that the frozen dinners were extremely responsible in their nutrition marketing. Most of the frozen dinners either had very little nutrition/health marketing at all or were entirely honest about the health benefits they provided.

On my way out, I took a stroll through the frozen breakfast section out of curiosity, and was amazed to find exactly the sort of outrageous marketing I had been looking for. Almost every box of frozen waffles, sausages, or egg sandwiches was stamped with one or more claims about the product’s nutritional content or health value.

I reworked my project: now, my plan was to compare the frequency of nutrition/health marketing claims on the packages of frozen breakfasts, frozen dinners, and prepackaged lunches (of which there were few).

The results are below.

Nutritional/Health
Claim
Frozen Breakfast
(N = 35)
Frozen Dinner
(N = 31)
Packaged Lunch
(N = 17)
Good Source Of… 9 0 2
Low… 5 1 3
Multigrain 6 0 0
Whole Grain 11 4 2
x Grams of Protein 3 4 0
Healthy 0 2 1
No Artificial Flavors/Colors 6 4 2
No High Fructose Corn Syrup 2 3 0
Natural 8 6 1
TOTAL 50 24 11
# OF NUTRITIONAL/HEALTH CLAIMS
No Claims 7 11 9
One Claim 11 16 5
Two Claims 12 4 3
Three Claims 5 0 0

As my first walk through the frozen section had suggested, nutrition/health marketing was much more common among the frozen breakfasts than either the frozen dinners or prepackaged lunches. In fact, the average frozen breakfast label had over double the nutrition/health claims as the average frozen dinner label.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 4.30.35 PM

The majority of packages in all three categories have one or fewer claims. Only frozen breakfast labels were seen to have as many as three claims on a single label.

OBSERVATIONS

Overall, frozen breakfast were most likely to make health claims regarding a single nutrient, such as “a good source of calcium”, or “no high fructose corn syrup.”

Frozen dinners make common use of terms such as “hearty” or “now with 80% more x“. These terms were used more frequently than actual health- or nutrition-related terms. This leads me to believe that designers of frozen dinner packages expect consumers to be more interested in how much food they will be getting for their money rather than in how healthy the food is.

Packaged lunches were similar to frozen breakfasts in their use of nutritional claims regarding a single nutrient in the food (either containing plenty of or none of the nutrient in question). Packaged lunches were also more likely to make heavy use of non-health or -nutrition marketing terms such as “convenient” or “portable”, which makes sense, as they were the only variety of food intended to be eaten outside of the home.

As suspected, most nutrition or health claims ran in brands. A brand was either very likely to use a specific claim, or not at all likely. For example, all three frozen dinners advertising the protein content of the product were from the Tyson brand.

“Healthy” was the least-frequently used term across all three categories, and “Whole Grain” was the most frequently used. “Natural” was commonly used to refer to a single ingredient of the food, such as “All-Natural White Meat Chicken”.

In the end, while I still don’t know much about how nutrition and health marketing relates to the actual healthiness of the product, I have learned a great deal more about how different types of meals are marketed to consumers. In the future, I would love to continue this research by extending it to iconography. I noticed that a lot of packages that made specific health claims usually incorporated images like fruits, skinny actors, or measuring tape to reinforce the claims. Similarly, there were a lot of full sentences and phrases that didn’t use a specific health/nutrition claim (so I couldn’t record them), but that carried obvious health or nutritional connotations such as “start the day off right!” or “feel great all day long.”

It would be interesting to conduct a similar study to examine use of such phrases and images. A challenge for another time!

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