A new study suggests that some foods labeled as “healthy” may have high, hidden levels of sugar.
“When people think something is healthy, they don’t psychologically process it that much and so the physiological factors take over,” says researcher Naomi Mandel, a professor at Arizona State University. “But when they think something is unhealthy, they’re able to override their physical impulses.”
For the study, a group of researchers created two types of protein shakes that tasted the same and contained the same amount of protein and calories. One shake contained high sugar and low fat, while the other had low sugar and high fat. Some shakes were labeled “healthy living” and others were labeled “indulgent” and carried information showing they were high in fat, sugar and calories.
The first phase of the experiment involved 76 college students who were randomly given either a high-sugar or low-sugar shake to drink, and were then provided potato chips to snack on. As expected, the students who had the high-sugar shake ate more potato chips.
In the second phase, researchers explored the participants’ perception of the labels. The sugar and non-sugar shakes were randomly passed out to another group of 193 students. People who drank a high-sugar shake labeled “indulgent” ate the least amount of potato chips, even less chips than people who drank low-sugar shakes marked as either “healthy” or “indulgent.”
“Labeling matters when people think something is healthy, they think it gives them a pass to make other food choices that may not be as healthy.”
The study recommends that people read the nutrition facts label and ingredient list included on food packaging, and figure out for themselves whether a product is healthy or not.