When Is a Salad Not a Salad? Why Dieters Are Easily Confused by Labels

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Dieters are a focused bunch: they calculate calories, sugar and fat content and conscientiously ask for salad dressing on the side. Right? Not exactly. According to a new study, dieters actually tend to make snap judgments about the healthfulness of food based solely on its label, instead of its ingredients.

“Over time, dieters learn to focus on simply avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on product name,” said the authors, Caglar Irmak, assistant professor of marketing at University of South Carolina; Beth Vallen, assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland; and Stefanie Rosen Robinson, a graduate student at University of South Carolina, in a statement [PDF]. “Thus, dieters are likely to assume that an item assigned an unhealthy name (for example, pasta) is less healthy than an item assigned a healthy name (for example, salad), and they do not spend time considering other product information that might impact their product evaluations.”

Given the ubiquity of health-washed products currently on store shelves — potato chips marketed as “veggie chips,” milk shakes sold as “smoothies,” sugary drinks repositioned as “flavored water” — that could lead to a lot of confusion, the authors said.

(More on TIME.com: “Why Looking at Overweight People Makes Us Want to Eat More, Not Less”)

In a series of experiments, the researchers asked participants — some who were dieting, some who weren’t — to evaluate the relative healthfulness and tastiness of foods, and measured those ratings against how much people consumed. In one experiment, people were asked to imagine ordering from a lunch menu and to gauge how healthy either the “daily salad special” or the “daily pasta special” was. They were given ingredient lists and photos of the entrees, which were actually exactly the same — both contained romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, onions, red peppers, pasta shells, salami, mozzarella cheese and a savory herb vinaigrette. Both totaled 900 calories, with 60 grams of fat. The only difference was that one was called a salad, and the other, pasta.

The label alone was enough to influence the dieters’ — but not the nondieters’ — ratings. When the product was called pasta, the dieters rated it as significantly less healthy than nondieters did. Interestingly, however, when it was given the “healthy” name, salad, it led to no difference in rating between the two groups. (But, overall, dieters believed the same dish, when called salad, was healthier.)

That’s because dieters tend to be more sensitive to certain taboo food names — like pasta, ice cream, potato chips and candy — than people who aren’t constantly watching their weight, and are more motivated to avoid them. On the flip side, however, their judgment of healthy-sounding foods is no different from nondieters’. So the typical dieter’s strategy isn’t necessarily to eat more good foods, but rather to avoid bad ones.

(More on TIME.com: “Health-Washing: Is ‘Healthy’ Fast Food for Real?”)

Why aren’t nondieters as easily fooled by product labels? The authors write:

It is important to note here that we do not believe that the reason nondieters’ ratings are immune to the impact of food name is that these individuals tend to evaluate foods more systematically than dieters. In fact, we argue that the reason the product name does not influence nondieters’ evaluations is that they have neither the motivation to spontaneously evaluate the healthfulness of foods nor the implicit associations between certain food categories and healthfulness that dieters do.

In other words, people who aren’t preoccupied with weight loss simply care less about this stuff.

In another experiment, dieters and nondieters were asked to rate the healthfulness and tastiness of sour Jelly Belly jelly beans — presented as either “fruit chews” or “candy chews.” Not only were dieters more likely to rate the candy chews as less healthy and less tasty than nondieters did, but also, ironically, they ate more of the snack when it was referred to as fruit chews.

(More on TIME.com: “Can a Mother’s Pregnancy Diet Influence Her Child’s Future Weight?”)

Seems as though dieters are so busy avoiding a long list of “forbidden” foods that they’re failing to take note of what really matters: the product’s ingredients, not the marketing hype.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.