Food labels should be standardised to help people make healthier choices

  • Date

    Tue 18 May 21

Dawn Holford

People are being tricked into thinking food is healthier for them than it really is, because they believe ‘energy and ‘calories’ are two different things, when in fact they mean the same.

Dr Dawn Holford, a psychologist from the University of Essex carried out a study into people’s understanding of food labels, and found people generally believed that food providing a lot of energy was healthier than food with a lot of calories. Conversely they felt low-calorie food was healthier than low-energy food. 

“Energy and calories are equivalent terms, but we found people perceived them to be different. We have known for some time that the way something is framed numerically affects how people feel about it  - so people prefer 75% lean meat, to meat with 25% fat.

“But this latest research really demonstrates the choice of terminology on food labels can also sway people’s judgement about how healthy a product is. This matters because it means people may not be eating as healthily as they think they are.

“At a time when we are all being urged to make healthy choices this loophole needs to be closed. The terminology needs to be standardised so that either energy or calories is used, so there can be no more confusion,” said Dr Holford.

In her study, Dr Holford found participants  generally viewed energy more positively than calories, but their  perception also depended on how much there was. Small amounts, such as  ‘low calories’ were seen as healthier, while large amounts such as ‘high energy’ were deemed healthier. In part participants felt manufacturers used terminology as a way of recommending a product – in effect putting a health halo on a product, to persuade people to buy it.

The paper, which was co-authored by Dr Marie Juanchich and Dr Miroslav Sirota, has been published in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making.