Have you ever been fooled by words like “natural” or “antioxidant” on food labels? We recently spoke with UH communication professor Temple Northup, Ph.D. about his insightful research into misleading food labels. Northup, co-director of the UH Gulf Coast Food Project, conducts scholarly research on food and its relationship with the community.
Q: How did the Gulf Coast Food Project start?
A: The GCFP was founded in 2008 by history professors Todd Romero and Monica Perales. They were both doing oral history projects related to food in this region and decided to create this as a unifying project that provides some overarching structure to what they (and now, we) do. I teamed up with Drs. Romero and Perales when I joined the UH faculty in 2011 and have been responsible primarily for overseeing the documentary production aspects of the project.
Q: What inspired you to conduct the recent study about misleading food labels?
A: This research really came out of my own interests in nutrition and my own paying more and more attention to the ways food is being marketed. One of the products used in the study, Cherry 7-Up, was at the time of the study being marketed with the word “antioxidant” across its label. That really was what got me to actually do this research study, as I realized that food with literally no nutritional value (soda) was being marketed as having at least some healthy attributes. I thought that was troubling and was curious if people were falling for it.
Q: What’s the most surprising aspect of this study?
A: The most surprising aspect of this research is that people are falling for the labels on the packaging and that this is a consistent effect. The products I was testing are not over-the-top in how they are being marketed, instead usually only containing one or two words, like organic or antioxidant, on them. I was surprised that just the addition of those single words was sufficient to influence how healthy people saw those products.
Q: How can consumers learn how to decipher what’s misleading and what’s truthful when it comes to buying food?
A: It’s very difficult to decipher food packaging. The best advice is always to read the ingredients as those tell the story of the food better than anything else. If sugar is one of the first ingredients, or if the list of ingredients is really long and contains a lot of words you don’t know, then it probably is highly processed and not healthy.
Q: Are you working on any other research for the GCFP?
A: With Dr. Romero, I am working on a documentary project that is looking at healthy eating and food access in underdeveloped neighborhoods here in Houston. I am also continuing this research looking at food marketing by trying to see if there are strategies that can be developed to help educate consumers, and whether simple education about the products and the misleading claims is sufficient to counteract the marketing.
Northup’s research has garnered attention from across the country. UH Sustainability will be featuring more information on how you can become a leaner, meaner, more responsible consumer.