How many times have you wished to find a diet which could allow you to lose weight without any effort required? People are often driven by the false hope that they can easily achieve maximum results with minimum effort. Nutrition misinformation is based on this common belief and on the easiness with which individuals are persuaded by fake news, misleading advertisements and unqualified promoters who sponsor “miracle” fat burning food and fast weight loss diets. Although it is highly subjective, there exist mainly three recognizable types of nutrition misinformation.
Firstly, health fraud scams are one of the most evident examples of misstatements about nutrition. Defined as misrepresentations of health claims (i.e., claims on food products which state that a specific good has beneficial nutritional properties), they imply the reliance in unsubstantiated health information. Common examples of health frauds are misguided statements such as “fast, quick, and easy weight loss, or “miracle, cure-all product”, which are intentionally misleading and bring consumers to believe that a product is healthier than it is in reality.
The concept of health fraud is based on a common bias called “health halo effect”. This bias alters consumers’ perceptions of the health and quality characteristics of the food item they purchase by means of intriguing claims on food packaging. The halo effect, in general, is the tendency to allow one specific impression or trait of a person or a thing to influence our overall judgment. This phenomenon is observable when, for example, we make an assumption about the intelligence and/or competence of a person by simply looking at his/her physical appearance. Recently, this bias has been introduced into sensory science and food psychology under the name of “health halo effect”. Health claims such as “sugarfree”, “glutenfree”, “natural”, “biological”, “vegan”, “low fat” lead to alter perceptions of the product in naive consumers, who associate these adjectives with positive properties even if the items are not necessary in line with them. Consumers affected by this bias tend to draw automatic conclusions by unconsciously judging such misleading food items and overestimating their beneficial properties.
Several types of evidence support the presence of the health halo effect in the food market. According to a study conducted by Wanchen Jenny Lee et al., people were asked to evaluate the properties of two groups of organic products, where in one group the items were labeled as “organic” and in the other they were labeled as “regular”.
The results showed that participants tended to estimate the foodstuffs with the organic label as healthier, lower in calories and richer in fibers than food without the organic label. Not only did the label alter consumers’ perception about the true meaning of the word “organic” but the subjects also showed a higher willingness to pay for products they perceived as healthier. Furthermore, the same reasoning applies to the perception of gluten-free products which are generally considered healthier even though they often are of low quality, rich in fat and calories. Another German study regarding the importance of descriptions in food items, has shown how replacing the word “sugar” on the labels of some products with “fruit sugar” (synonym of fructose), make consumers judge the latter as healthier, altering their perceptions of healthiness. All these experiments suggest that when we make decisions without being fully aware of the appropriate data, our memory tends to associate an initial knowledge with further information which may, possibly, be uncorrelated: when one reads a “no cholesterol” claim on a product, his/her mind immediately connects this property with further concepts such as low-fat, health, reduction in heart disease which may or may not be correlated. Therefore, the presence of health statements on food packaging may induce consumers to generalize, infer or overestimate the beneficial properties of a product.
A second type of nutrition misinformation is food quackery, namely the promotion of questionable foodstuff whose properties have not scientific bases. The etymology of the word is quacksalver, which means “healing with unguents”, and it refers to how the so-called quacksalvers, namely the ones who adopt this kind of nutrition misinformation, advocate products whose safety and effectiveness are still unproven. For example, garlic is frequently sold as a remedy for blood sugar imbalance, blood pressure and arterial plaque or as a cancer cure. However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, although garlic may have some beneficial effects for our health, its overestimated reputation as a miracle remedy hasn’t received yet no scientific support.
One last health fraud is food faddism and fad diets, defined as reducing diets that enjoy temporary popularity. The main aim is to promote ideas, with no scientific basis, that consuming certain food, vitamins, and mineral supplements, not only would make the consumer immediately lose weight but that would prevent him/her from many diseases. Examples include grapefruit diet or low carb diet. The most fraudulent products advertised by fad diets promoters usually promise quick, painless results, based on undocumented case histories from satisfied patients.
To conclude, there are many questions we need to address when it comes to nutrition. Do we really know where the food we eat comes from, who produces it, or what kind of impact it has on our health and on the planet? Are we truly aware of what there is behind the words “sustainable”, “green” and “organic”? A responsible consumer should ask himself/herself these questions more often to avoid being subject to health and food frauds. Since we are preys of misleading information that by availing of cognitive biases unconsciously make us behave in accordance to what the seller wants us to purchase, the consumers should try to reduce the power in the hand of the seller by becoming more conscious of the threats and possible frauds he/she may encounter.
Byrd, J., Powell, D. and Smith, D., 2013. Health care fraud: an introduction to a major cost issue
Jarvis, W., 1981. Food Faddism, Cultism, and Quackery
Kardes, F., 2015. The Role of Perceived Variability and the Health Halo Effect in Nutritional Inference and Consumption.