Food MarketingI remember when I first experienced McDonald’s push to promote their Fruit & Maple Oatmeal.  The splashes of color and texture from the fresh fruit and oats in the commercial seemed to scream “Eat me, I’m good for you!”  It seemed as though the fast food chain had made a turn to answer the cries of many Americans for healthier food alternatives.  I was surprised, however, when reading a recent article in TIME.  According to the article, McDonald’s Fruit & Maple Oatmeal contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than an Egg McMuffin.

But how was McDonald’s able to present their product in a healthy light in spite of its conflicting nutritional information?  A recent study published in The Journal of Consumer Research may have an answer.

According to the study, dieters appear to be more drawn to words like “healthy” than non-dieters.  It is because of this that many dieters are drawn to these foods even when the nutritional facts don’t live up to the claim.  Dieters were found to often have taboo food names, like ice cream, pasta, potato chips, and candy.  These food names carry a negative connotation to dieters, and are consequently avoided.  However, dieters tend to do a better job at just avoiding these foods rather than combining avoidance with seeking out healthier foods.  This becomes an issue when such taboo foods are marketed in a different way, such as the term “veggie chips” instead of potato chips.

The study, outlined in a recent TIME article, consisted of two tests.  In the first tests, investigators polled 66 passers-by on the street.  All of the passers by were given the same description of a dish: “onions and red peppers tossed with pasta shells, diced tomatoes, salami, mozzarella cheese, dressed with a savory herb vinaigrette.  Served chilled on a bed of fresh romaine lettuce.”  Half of the participants were told that the disk was a salad while the other half was told that it was a pasta dish.  It was found that dieters saw the “pasta” dish as less healthy than when it was described to them as a “salad.”

In the second test, 142 college students were randomly given a chewable product (which were in actuality, Jelly Belly candies), that were referred to as either “candy chews” or “fruit chews.”  Participants indicating they were on a diet also expressed that they believed “candy chews” to be less healthy than “fruit shoes.”  As a result, it was found that more fruit chews were consumed by dieters than candy chews, even though both products were identical.

Though dieters were quick to judge healthfulness based on labels, why weren’t non-dieters as sensitive?  According to TIME, individuals not on diets are generally less concerned about the names attributed to foods because they are not as preoccupied with losing weight.  Additionally, non-dieters are also generally expected to have a higher likelihood of checking nutritional content before consumption.

As Americans move towards a trend of being more health-conscious, one can only wonder how this trend will change the game in food marketing.