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When Are "Healthy Foods" Actually Healthy? Deciphering Health Claims

featured / public health / health communication / behavioral change / blog

In honor of National Public Health Week, it is important to consider the value of a healthy diet. Healthy eating is important for maintaining a healthy body weight, preventing many diseases, and keeping people feeling good and energized throughout the day. Most people agree that having a healthy diet sounds great in theory. However, consumers often report confusion regarding which foods are healthy and what “healthy” even means.

It can be difficult to decipher all the health claims out there, many of which can seem confusing or contradictory. This forces consumers to have to answer questions such as:

  • Should I eat a plant-based diet, like vegan or vegetarian, where much of my protein intake comes from nuts, legumes, seeds, and whole grains? Or should I eat a paleo diet, where, instead, I get my protein from lean meat, eggs, and fish?*
  • What’s more important whole grain or gluten free?*
  • Are avocados, olives, and nuts healthy despite being high in fat and calories?*

The current understanding of a healthy diet includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, water, lean meat, and fish. Frequently, perceived contradictions in dieting advice are due to marketing campaigns aimed at selling certain products or new diet strategies to consumers. By the time nutrition information gets to consumers, it has often been undermined or muddied by food companies, simple attention-grabbing headlines, fad diets, or internet echo chambers.

Given the prevalence of misleading information, the goal of the Nutrition Facts label (found on the back of packaged foods) is to help consumers make informed decisions about what foods to eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently taken steps to make the Nutrition Facts label more informative and user-friendly. These steps include reflecting more realistic serving sizes, increasing the font size of calorie information, including an "added sugars" section, and changing the footnote to help consumers understand the "% Daily Value" column.

FMG, national public health week, FDA, nutrition label
Source: "Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label," FDA. Download the full FDA infographic here.

In addition to the changes to the Nutrition Facts label, future steps could include adding symbols, phrases, or icons indicating a food’s healthfulness to help consumers interpret the nutrition facts information. My own research, which I presented at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Meeting, examined the extent to which a heart symbol helped young adults interpret calorie information on their menu. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups—(1) no heart icon or calorie information, (2) calorie information only, (3) heart icon only, (4) heart icon and calorie information—and were asked to choose which foods they would order for lunch. We found that although neither the icon nor the calorie information alone led to the participants choosing significantly fewer calories, the icon paired with the calorie information was an effective tool for helping participants choose lower calorie items.

Given the amount of misleading information that is publicly available, it is important that organizations like the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue taking steps to help consumers make informed nutrition decisions. Fors Marsh Group understands the value of creating effective educational materials for consumers and has conducted previous research with the USDA and the FDA, examining the clarity of and people’s perceptions toward various diet-related materials and front-of-package labeling. Additionally, our extensive experience evaluating advertisements and developing informative social marketing campaigns aimed at improving consumer health makes us well suited for helping these agencies tackle healthy food related issues moving forward.

*Answer to the questions listed above.

Bonus: Even if avocados weren’t healthy, I’d still eat them! #guacamole


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