Supermarket sleuth: How food packaging affects what you buy
Did you know that food packaging can affect what you buy and eat? Nutritionist and research scientist Bridget Carmady takes a look at the ways food companies try to sell us their goods.
What’s your signature colour?
Do you associate elegance and sophistication with the colour black? Or sweetness with pinks and reds? Does the colour green remind you of nature? Food companies choose certain colours for their packaging to trigger an association or send a certain message. Some companies have registered ‘trademark colours’, of which they are very protective. Cadbury, for example, has the exclusive use of several shades of purple for its chocolate products. You probably recognise those purples very easily, and know what product you’re grabbing without reading the label.
Dr Phil Mohr, a research scientist at CSIRO Food and Nutritional Sciences, believes that when it comes to things like colours and food packaging “people tend to respond to fairly simple cues when making food choices. This tendency makes for efficiency in decision making, but these cues may lead to people making decisions that aren’t in the interests of their health.”
The material food manufacturers use is another way to get you to associate their product with a certain message. Paper packaging is often associated with ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’. For example, lollies packaged in brown paper may make you feel that you’re making a healthier confectionary choice. Packaging also affects how we see food in terms of freshness, quality and cost. Canned goods are generally very affordable, but foods sold in glass bottles and jars often cost more, since foods in glass packaging are often associated with higher quality products.
Humans are creatures of habit and consumers tend to stick with products they know. This type of brand recognition and loyalty starts at an early age, and it appears that food branding can actually influence taste perception. A 2007 US study gave children five pairs of identical foods and drinks, with each pair containing a food item packaged in McDonald’s wrappers and the other in unbranded packaging. Researchers asked them which product they preferred in each pair and found that most children preferred the taste of food and drink in McDonald’s packaging.
The ‘health halo’
The term ‘health halo’ means that consumers extend the positive qualities of some of a brand or restaurant’s food products to the rest of the company’s product range.
To test the ‘health halo’ theory, a US study asked diners at both McDonald’s and Subway restaurants to estimate the amount of calories they had consumed in their meal. Diners at Subway estimated that their meal contained 21.3 per cent fewer calories than a meal of the same calorie count at McDonald’s.
What about foods labelled ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’?
There are now countless food products available in reduced-fat versions so you can reduce your fat intake, whilst still enjoying your favourite foods. However, tudiesincreasingly show that when foods are labelled ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’, consumers underestimate the kilojoule content and indulge in larger portions. In addition, many consumers believe low-fat foods are also low in energy – but this is not necessarily the case. Foods such as marshmallows can be low in fat but high in kilojoules, particularly when the sugar content is high.
During a survey conducted in New York in 2008, people were asked to estimate the calorie content of either a chicken salad with a soft drink or a chicken salad with a soft drink and a packet of crackers labelled ‘trans fat-free’. The results show that the ‘trans-fat free’ label led many participants to significantly underestimate the calorie content of the entire meal, by an average of 176 calories.
Don’t fall victim to pretty packaging
When food shopping, it pays to look at the Nutrition Information Panel on the back of products –especially products with nutrition claims on the front. An energy comparison will reveal which product is really the healthiest. Eye-catching colours and ‘natural’ claims can also be tempting – and costly. Don’t rely on familiarity, either – you could be influenced by the ‘health halo’ of your favourite healthy product.