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New research warns consumers to consider portion sizes of 'healthier' foods

17 May 2013

Foods marketed as ‘healthier’ are seen by consumers as a licence to overeat and could actually lead to weight gain according to the interim results of new University of Ulster research.

The safefood funded research, being led by Professor Barbara Livingstone, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Ulster, indicates that products with health and nutrition claims such as ‘low fat’ and ‘reduced fat’ may be contributing to people eating larger than recommended portions.

It also indicates that many people assume that these foods with certain health claims are lower in calories than they are. The aim of the research, conducted among over 180 adults on the island of Ireland who had a range of body weights, was to compare what people thought to be the calorie content and reasonable portion sizes of ‘healthier’ and ‘standard’ foods.

Introducing the research, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director, Human Health & Nutrition, safe food , said: “There has been a huge increase in the number of food products with nutrition and health claims sold over the last 20 years, but we also know that the population’s weight has continued to increase. We commissioned this research to explore people’s understanding of these products given their popularity.”

Dr Foley-Nolan continued: “The research shows that these foods are viewed by some consumers as a license to overeat. However, in the case of many products, the fat that is removed in the ‘healthier’ product is replaced by other ingredients, such as sugar, and the calorie savings are small. Consumers need to relook at their portion sizes, as any benefit they might get from these ‘healthier’ processed foods could be undone by just how much of them they are eating."

Survey volunteers were shown 3 pairs of food - one marketed as ‘healthier’ and an equivalent ‘standard’ product. They were then asked to measure a recommended portion of each of these foods. They were also asked to rate how guilty they would feel if they ate what they perceived to be an appropriate portion.

The results showed the perceived appropriate portion sizes chosen by the survey volunteers was 28-71% larger than the recommended portion size on the label for five out of the six foods.

Professor Barbara Livingstone, said: “This study supports what is described by many as ‘the health halo’ effect; that is, that consumers perceivethese products to be healthier and with less calories than the ‘standard’ version food. They see them as representing the less guilty option and so eat more of them. Further education on what is a healthy portion size is warranted to overcome these misconceptions.”

The research report “Perceptions of ‘Healthiness’ of Foods” is available to download from the International Journal of Obesity.