• 07/07/2015

How food marketing influences consumer behavior

“Fitness” foods: A risk for the overweight?

Foods branded with the terms “fit” or “fitness” are highly popular among nutritionally-aware consumers. However, people actually seeking to lose weight are tempted to eat more by such labeling. Not only that: they also exercise less than other trial participants despite taking in more energy. This is the result of a study conducted by the Technische Universität München (TUM) and Pennsylvania State University published in the<i> Journal of Marketing Research</i>.

The TUM researchers observed that the snack labeled with “fitness” not only tempted people seeking to lose weight to eat more but also to exercise less. (Photo: Veronika Rajcsanyi/TUM)
The TUM researchers observed that the snack labeled with “fitness” not only tempted people seeking to lose weight to eat more but also to exercise less. (Photo: Veronika Rajcsanyi/TUM)

Many foods, such as cereal bars, dairy products and other drinks, are marketed using the term “fitness” or “fit”. “We asked ourselves whether and how such labeling influences consumer eating habits,” says Prof. Jörg Königstorfer, TUM Professor of Sport and Health Management, who conducted the study together with Prof. Hans Baumgartner of Pennsylvania State University.

The fitness labeling did in fact have an impact and most significantly among individuals who indicated that they had weight problems and were seeking to lose weight. “This group consumed more of the snacks provided than other study participants. They took in between 50 and 100 kilocalories more,” explains Königstorfer.

Trail mix with sneakers

In their study, the researchers pretended to be carrying out taste tests for a new brand of trail mix. They gave the test persons eight minutes to sample and rate the product, and asked them to imagine they were eating an afternoon snack at home.

Some of the test subjects were given an 800-gram packet that declared the content was “Fitness Trail Mix” that additionally carried the depiction of a pair of sneakers. The study organizers gave the other group neutral packaging. After the test, the persons completed a questionnaire that also contained questions about eating habits and health details in addition to the rating.

More calories, less exercise

In a further experiment, the study organizers asked the probands to get onto an ergometer after the tasting. “We told them that we wanted to analyze the relation between food intake and physical exercise,” says Königstorfer. “The subjects decided for themselves how long and intensively they wanted to cycle for.”

In the process, the researchers observed that tempting participants seeking to lose weight to eat more was not the only effect that the “fitness” snack had. “Despite this group taking in significantly more energy or calories, they were also less active on the ergometer,” sums up Königstorfer. “These participants apparently regard the fitness food as a substitute for physical exercise.”

Explanation puts “fitness” effect into perspective

The researchers also analyzed the role played by information about the product. For this purpose, they provided varying information. Some of the test persons who wanted to lose weight received information about health-enhancing ingredients, such as magnesium, vitamin B and dietary fiber. The high fat and fruit sugar content was emphasized to the other group.

“When we explained the high energy content of the nut mixture to the participants, the term ‘fitness’ lost its effect,” explains Königstorfer. “Those who were watching their weight then ate a similar amount of trail mix.”

The authors see a clear indication in the results of their study that the “fitness” label represents a risk for overweight individuals. “For people who enjoy eating and perhaps also overindulging, the word ‘fit’ is like ‘carte blanche’ to eat more and exercise less to burn off the excess energy.”

The Effect of Fitness Branding on Restrained Eaters’ Food Consumption and Post-Consumption Physical Activity; Joerg Koenigstorfer, Hans Baumgartner; Journal of Marketing Research; doi: 10.1509/jmr.12.0429

Prof. Dr. Jörg Königstorfer
Technische Universität München
Sport and Health Management
Tel.: +49 89 289 24558
joerg.koenigstorferspam prevention@tum.de

Technical University of Munich

Corporate Communications Center

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