The science behind why you never want to buy healthy food

Healthy eating is hard enough all on its own, but a new study finds that the packaging on many whole-grain food labels is adding yet another hoop for health-conscious shoppers to jump through on their journey to better wellbeing. 

Researchers from Tufts University and New York University surveyed over 1,000 U.S. adults on their ability to accurately read and understand the nutritional information displayed on various whole grain food products (cereal, crackers, bread). The subsequent results strongly suggest that the current standards for whole-grain packaging are way too confusing and should be overhauled.

With so many not-so-healthy food products to choose from, shoppers shouldn’t have to solve a nutritional puzzle to find and purchase healthier snacks.

“Our study results show that many consumers cannot correctly identify the amount of whole grains or select a healthier whole grain product. Manufacturers have many ways to persuade you that a product has whole grain even if it doesn’t. They can tell you it’s multigrain or they can color it brown, but those signals do not really indicate the whole grain content,” explains first study author Parke Wilde, a food economist, and professor at the Friedman School, in a release.

In total, 1,030 participants took part in this research. Each person was given a survey to fill out that featured images of both real and hypothetical whole grain food products. Every image displayed the whole grain labels on the front of the packaging, as well as the full nutritional table and list of ingredients (usually located on the back of the box). 

The hypothetical foods featured a variety of different multigrain labels; some didn’t mention whole grains at all on the front of the packaging, but others featured stickers saying “multigrain” or “made with whole grains.” Finally, other hypothetical foods displayed a whole grain stamp. Meanwhile, the real wholegrain food products were shown to participants just as they would appear on a grocery store shelf. These foods had markings proclaiming “multigrain,” “12 grain,” and “honey wheat.”

For the hypothetical whole grain food products, subjects were presented with two fake products and asked to pick out the healthier option. For the real whole grain food labels included in the experiment, participants just had to read the nutritional facts and determine the food’s whole grain content. 

Regarding the hypothetical products, 47% of the participants answered incorrectly for bread. Similarly, 31% answered wrongly for cereal, and 29-37% were unable to pick out the healthier whole-grain cracker option. 

Moving on to the real whole grain products, a significant portion of participants were fooled by the foods’ packaging into thinking the items featured far more whole grains. In all, 41% overstated the grain count for multigrain crackers, 43% did the same for honey wheat bread, and 51% overestimated the whole grain content of 12-grain bread products.

In light of these results, the study’s authors say it’s clear that U.S. whole-grain food labels need more oversight and requirements. 

“With the results of this study, we have a strong legal argument that whole grain labels are misleading in fact. I would say when it comes to deceptive labels, ‘whole grain’ claims are among the worst. Even people with advanced degrees cannot figure out how much whole grain is in these products,” comments study co-author Jennifer L. Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health.

While white bread is synonymous with Americana, many among us would benefit greatly from eating more whole-grain bread and similar food items. Regular consumption of whole grains is linked to a lower risk of various major health problems, including cancer and heart disease.

“A large chunk of Americans’ daily calories – 42 percent – comes from low quality carbohydrates. Consuming more whole grains can help change that, but the policy challenge is to provide consumers with clear labels in order to make those healthier choices,” concludes co-senior study author Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School.

The full study can be found here, published in Public Health Nutrition.