We have all tried to control our body weight at some time or another. We do so by watching what and how much we eat and by regulating our activity level, thus addressing both sides of the energy balance equation. To adhere to this lifestyle, we may seek out foods that fit with our goals.
Marketers use ”fitness” cues on food packages to illicit a certain response from the consumers. Food products referring to “fitness” or pictures of athletes on food packages are commonplace in today’s supermarkets. This is referred to as “fitness branding”, as it builds on the notion of fitness. However, incorporation of “fitness” into food branding may be misleading for consumers who try to control their weight.
A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research investigated the effect of foods marketed as “fitness” foods on the energy intake and physical activity level in restrained eaters. The authors performed three separate studies.
In the first study, they recruited 163 participants. Half of the participants were asked to test a new trail mix with a “fitness” label, while the other half were asked to test a new trail mix (no “fitness” label). The two trail mix packages were similar, but the “fitness” trail mix also sported a picture of running shoes.
In the second study, the authors repeated the design but added description of the trail mix as either “a food that has a high content of vitamins and minerals, contains many nutrients that support the monitoring of body weight, such as magnesium, vitamin B, and fiber and is therefore classified as food that is allowed on a diet” or “a food that has a high content of fat and sugar, contains many nutrients that do not support the monitoring of body weight, such as fatty acids, fructose, and oils and is therefore classified as food that is prohibited on a diet.”
Results of both studies revealed that those participants given the “fitness” trail mix, consumed more food compared to participants given the trail mix without the fitness label. These two studies, however, only investigated one side of the energy balance equation: the food intake. To investigate the other side of the energy balance equation, energy expenditure, the authors performed a third study.
In study three, the authors tested the effect of f fitness cues on trail mix packaging on postconsumption physical activity. The set up regarding trail mix was identical to that of studies one and two, but in study three participants were asked, after trail mix tasting, to cycle for as long and as hard as they wished. They found that those individuals who consumed the trail mix labelled with fitness cues performed less physical activity.
The authors concluded “that fitness branding, particularly when implemented on dietary-permitted food, may have undesirable effects on the weight-control behaviors of restrained eaters because fitness cues lead restrained eaters to eat more and exercise less”.
Nina Zisko, researcher at CERG and Fredrik Hjulstad Bækkerud, PhD student at CERG