A new study by Scottish researchers has revealed that health-related messages such as ‘0% fat’, ‘zero sugar’, ‘healthy gut’ and ‘five a day’ may be sending consumers in entirely the wrong direction, even leading them to gain weight, not lose it.

The research - just in time for the festive blow out and inevitable new year diet - has unveiled the unintended consequences of health-related messages on food packaging which, although supposed to help consumers make healthier food choices and eat a balanced diet, can instead have a negative impact.

The study, carried out by a team based at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and published in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology investigated how ‘healthy option’ packaging labels feed into shoppers’ subconscious, sparking a range of behaviours which can lead to consuming more calories than they think.

Faced with a bewildering array of food choices, the study found time poor shoppers tend to place trust in the ‘at a glance’ front of package messages rather than reading the small print nutritional value labels, leading to less informed dietary choices.

In addition, the study found consumers were prone to underestimate the calorie content of meals which contained items regarded as being ‘healthy’ – such as a zero-calorie drink or pot of yoghurt served alongside a burger. That could also potentially lead to overconsumption of calories and weight gain.

The findings expose the pitfalls of relying on quick and easy to read labels and highlights how consumers can inadvertently consume far more calories than they realise.


The Herald: The study investigated ‘calorie illusion’ - how calorie content can easily be miscalculated The study investigated ‘calorie illusion’ - how calorie content can easily be miscalculated

While the researchers say the findings underscore the need for better consumer education on nutritional content and suggest food regulations surrounding health and nutrition claims on packaging could be stricter.

They have also called for the food industry to commit to more transparent labelling regarding nutritional and health claims, so consumers receive clear and accurate information to make better dietary choices.

The study surveyed 525 people aged from 18 to 80 and found less than one-third consistently check the nutrition facts on food packing.

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It also discovered more than 30% of those surveyed indicated that nutrition or health claims on packaging deterred them from scrutinising the detailed nutritional information concerning calories, sugar and fat content on the back.

Although more than half of those taking part were classed as either overweight or obese, and nearly 80% saying they cared ‘more than moderately’ about their weight, around 40% admitted to struggling when it came to accurately assessing the caloric content of foods.

The study investigated ‘calorie illusion’ - how calorie content can be miscalculated due to various factors such as food labelling, health claims or the presence of healthy ingredients.

It also examined the ‘halo effect’, where the addition of a food regarded as a healthy choice to a meal – such as carrot sticks served alongside a fast food burger - can lead it being perceived as more nutritious, healthier or lower in calories than it actually is.

Crucially, the study found nutrition and health claims, like 'low-fat' or 'zero-sugar,' tended to lead people to guess the number of calories to be lower than the reality, especially for foods that are not healthy.

The researchers say the finding suggests that while nutrition and health claims are designed to enhance the perceived healthiness of food products, they can also inadvertently lead to misconceptions about calorie content.

They added that there was a tendency among consumers assume that foods labelled as healthier are always lower in calories.

The Herald: Consumers tended to under-estimate calories in a meal accompanied by a 'healthy choice' foodConsumers tended to under-estimate calories in a meal accompanied by a 'healthy choice' food

“Although guessing the calorie content and healthiness of food saves the time it would take to check the nutrition fact panel, the estimated calorie content and perception of nutrition is prone to errors.”

According to the Scottish Health Survey 2021, two-thirds of adults in Scotland are ‘living with overweight’, while 29% of men and 31% of women are classed as ‘obese’.

In addition, a third of children are outside the healthy weight range, with almost one in five considered at risk of obesity.

Overweight and obesity has been linked with a wide range of health issues including Type 2 diabetes,  cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and cancer.

Diabetes Scotland recently warned Scotland is in the grip of an 'escalating' diabetes crisis, with a 70% jump in the number of under-40s with diabetes over the past four years.

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The Scottish Government announced a move in 2018 to tackle Scotland’s obesity figures, with plans to curb promotions such as meal deals and restrict advertising of food and drink that is high in fat, sugar and salt.

It is currently consulting on the detail of proposed regulations, while plans to put calorie information on menus have been paused to allow further analysis into how the measure may impact on people with eating disorders.

SRUC researcher Dr Toju Begho, who worked on the study, said: Food manufacturers should exercise restraint in exaggerating the health and nutritional benefits of their products, especially when there is a tendency to mislead consumers.

“It is important for retailers to avoid promoting food in a manner that may prompt eating unhealthy foods.

“For instance, they should not use healthy items like vegetables and fruits as bait to encourage the consumption of unhealthy food in meal deals. 

 “A large part of the responsibility lies with consumers,” he added.

“Dieters can better understand labels and make more informed choices by reading nutritional information labels and avoiding reliance solely on front-of-package nutrition or health claims when making purchasing decisions.

“Most importantly, when combining foods in a meal, consumers should be aware of the nutrient composition and portion control, and not assume that adding a healthy component will lower the overall calorie content of the meal.”