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Science or Fiction?

Science or Fiction?Do claims about the health benefits of different foods actually convince consumers to try them?

Boston [06.05.01] As nutritional research grows in popularity and Americans continue to seek "miracle foods" to treat health problems, many food companies are taking a new marketing approach. While taste still matters, more food companies are touting the health benefits of their products to consumers. Is it working?

"Perhaps," said Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D. -- an expert at the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She told the Washington Post that the health claims can sway consumers. The marketing ploys may be particularly effective at encouraging people to try new products.

After reading about the benefits of a certain substance, such as soy, someone may be inclined to try out foods with high concentrations of it, she said.

According to the Post, "The health benefit claim has moved them to give it a shot, especially, Goldberg says, if they're worried about getting cancer or some other disease."

But taste remains supreme.

"The primary determinant of food is taste," the Tufts nutrition researcher told the Post. While a consumer may try a product because of its alleged health benefits, it won't become a staple part of the diet if it tastes bad.

"If they don't like it, they won't try it again," she said.

While people can be erratic in their food purchases, Goldberg says cost and convenience typically follow taste in the order of importance to a consumer.

So how do companies develop their healthy food claims?

Lawrence Lindner -- executive editor of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter -- said many of the claims start with legitimate research, but the food industry doesn't always stick with the hard facts.

"What often happens, whether industry actually pays for a study or not, is that the results get exaggerated," Lindner wrote in his regular Washington Post column.

"For instance, a study that linked diets high in vitamin E to a reduced risk for stroke (but didn't prove a connection) was translated to 'Mayonnaise helps protect women from strokes' by the Atlanta-based Association for Dressings and Sauces because mayonnaise is a relatively concentrated source of vitamin E," Lindner wrote.

To many experts, the claims are not scientific.

"It quickly gets very silly, this message of 'This much on a daily basis will do whatever,'" Goldberg told the Post.

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