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The health craze feeds on anxiety

Isabel Williams
Written By
Isabel Williams
The health craze feeds on anxiety
Artwork by Louise Pau

I walk into the grocery store motivated to buy healthy groceries. I need cereal and look up at the rows and rows of different options. The tidal wave of information paralyzes me. Whole grain, high in fiber, flax seeds, no sugar. I spend hours pouring over academically reviewed papers on exactly what size of oats would be best for my digestive system. After 3 hours of research, I make a selection.

I move on to the next item on my list.

Just kidding, I spend 45 seconds looking at the pretty boxes and grab one.

If I truly cared about picking the healthiest option, hours upon hours of research would be necessary, as I currently do not hold a Ph.D. in cereal science. But that’s not how people make decisions.

What element of packaging helps us make these decisions so quickly? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the colour green.

In The Impact of Packaging Design on Health Product Perceptions, researchers looked at what visual component of packaging has the biggest impact on perceived healthiness. Participants reviewed baby food, soup, and coffee packaging images. They were shown multiple options for each category with different visual combinations. This included colours, amount of text, organic logo, and imagery. Participants ranked the images from most to least healthy.

The study found that the amount of information was the most influential factor. More information = more healthy.

Is that because information effectively communicates to the consumer what’s inside the box? Well, no.

The information used was vague, e.g. “clean and balanced”. Another study on cigarette packaging found that people rated the box with ‘light’, ‘mild’, and ‘slim’ to be less harmful than the control, despite there being no difference between the products.

The presence of information provides the possibility for understanding, which leads to perceived healthiness.

By providing people with all the information they could ask for, or maybe just more than their attention span can withstand, you’re able to ease a major public anxiety: “I have no idea what’s in this box.”