photoFood marketers who put “salad” or some other healthy-sounding word in the name of their product have a better chance of selling it to health or diet conscious consumers, according to a new study. 

University of South Carolina assistant professor of marketing Dr. Caglar Irmak found that that dieters eager to make good food choices are more at risk of being misled by food names than non-dieters.

His study found that dieters rate food items with healthy names such as “salad” as being healthier than identical food items with less healthy names such as “pasta.” Non-dieters made no such distinction.

He conducted the study with co-authors Beth Vallen of Loyola University and Stefanie Rose Robinson, a doctoral student in marketing at South Carolina.

Dieters vulnerable to 'naming traps'

“The fact that people’s perceptions of healthfulness vary with the name of the food item isn’t surprising,” Irmak said. “What is interesting is that dieters, who try to eat healthy and care about what they eat, fell into these ‘naming traps’ more than non-dieters who really don’t care about healthy eating.”

As part of his study, Irmak took identical candy and labeled half of it “fruit chew.” The other half was packaged as “Candy Chew.” He then offered it to his test group of dieters.

Not only did dieters perceive the candy named fruit chew as more healthful than the one named candy chew, but they ate more candies when the items were called fruit chews.

Why are dieters who want to eat well so easily duped by these labels?

What's in a name?

Dieters avoid forbidden foods based on product names, Irmak said. As they hone in on food names – salad versus pasta – they give less consideration to product information.

On the flip side, Irmak said, non-dieters tend to miss cues that imply healthfulness, including names, because of their lack of focus on healthy eating.

A salad in a restaurant may include items that dieters typically would avoid, such as meat, cheese, bread or pasta. Other examples Irmak gives are milkshakes listed as “smoothies,” potato chips called “veggie chips” and sugary drinks labeled “favored water.”

He says dieters should focus on reading nutritional information on food products and menus and not food names.

“These results should give dieters pause. The study shows that dieters base their food decisions on the name of the food item instead of the ingredients of the item,” Irmak said. “As a result, they may eat more than what their dieting goals prescribe.”

Irmak and his colleagues based their conclusions on surveys and experiments involving more than 520 participants.