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Healthy food cues have little impact on food choice, research shows

Healthy food cues have little impact on food choice, research shows

Stand-alone healthy advertising and cues do not promote healthier food buying choices but may counteract advertising for sugary and fatty foods, according to a study at the University of Cambridge.

The research, published in the journal Appetite, found that healthy messaging on products did little to influence buying choices, but that hedonic or pleasure-linked cues reduce healthy choices by 3%.

However, if healthy and non-healthy prompts are presented simultaneously, the healthy messaging can counteract the non-healthy messaging and help people make better food choices, they found.

The study, one of the largest of its kind, analysed the choices of 1,200 people based in the Netherlands using a mocked-up online supermarket. Study participants were selected to be representative of age, gender and income and were asked to make 18 food choices in the online supermarket, each time choosing one product out of six. Three of the products presented were unhealthy, and three were healthy.

Whilst making their selections, participants were exposed to advertising banners promoting both healthy and unhealthy foods and recipes. The researchers examined the impact of healthy eating cues on buying choices by looking at how participants responded to descriptions such as ‘low calorie’ (healthy) or ‘tasty’ (less healthy) to influence their decisions. To compare stand-alone prompts on food products, unrelated adverts for non-food products were also shown.

When healthy and non-healthy prompts are presented simultaneously, the healthy prompts have a protective effect in fully neutralising the non-healthy nudges. The researchers suggest this could work by triggering an ‘alarm bell’ in the participants to activate control processes.

Professor Lucia Reisch from the University of Cambridge said: ‘The practical impacts of our findings are two-fold: the results cast doubt on the effectiveness of health-goal cues to boost healthy food choices, but they suggest that healthy primes could prevent less healthy food choices by countering hedonic cues through the interaction of the competing messages.’

The results were largely unaffected by factors including gender, hunger, dietary restraint and body mass index and suggest that healthy prompts alone are not enough to increase healthy food choices. When healthy messages are used to counteract unhealthy messages, they have more impact.