Why Food Buzzwords Are Misleading

November 28, 2001


Organic, gluten free and whole wheat are words that are found on almost every package these days. The other day I bought a bag of popcorn that had “gluten free” stamped across it. I’m not sure I need the label to tell me that my corn product did not contain wheat. Obviously, this is a marketing ploy: We completely buy into the idea that these buzzwords make our food healthy. Whole wheat Kraft macaroni and cheese? Long-lasting energy! Gluten free gummy bears? Clean eating! Organic potato chips? Less chemicals for me!

In a recent study
, 318 undergraduate students were asked to look at the labels of various food products and rate how healthful they were. Packages with buzzwords like those described above were rated significantly higher than those without. In fact, because of its packaging, 33 percent of the students rated Spam as healthier than salmon. (Now that’s truly terrifying.) 

Which apple sauce would you choose?

Obviously, you know that carrot sticks are better for you than potato chips. But this study is a cautionary tale: When we grocery shop, we can go on auto pilot and become a victim of smart marketing ploys. If you’re going to grab that soda with antioxidants because you were going to drink one anyways, then go for it. But if you’re letting yourself be fooled, remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.