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Wheaties, “The Breakfast of Champions,” has been featuring athletes on its boxes since it first put Lou Gehrig there in 1934. Today, many other food products are packaged to suggest they promote fitness: protein bars, energy drinks, yogurt, and more. There’s even Fit & Active pork bacon.

Just because a food is marketed as a “fitness” food, however, doesn’t mean it will improve one’s health. In fact, such foods can backfire for health-conscious consumers.

In a study of 536 college students, published online this month in the Journal of Marketing Research, fitness branding led to higher levels of consumption and less physical activity than a snack without such labeling.

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Fitness labeling is not regulated, so such foods can be high in sugar or calories, says study author Jörg Königstorfer, chair of sport and health management at Technische Universität München in Germany. “Don’t rely on these misleading labels.”

Königstorfer, together with Penn State marketing professor Hans Baumgartner, invited health-conscious college students to taste-test a trail mix snack labeled either “Trail Mix” or “Fitness,” the latter adorned with a picture of a running shoe.

Volunteers offered the “Fitness” snack ate far more than those given the one marked “Trail Mix.” Unless, however, they were told that the fitness-labeled snack wasn’t good for their diet. In that case, those with the fitness-labeled snack ate less than the control group.

Then came a second blow: When given the chance to exercise on a stationary bike after snacking, those volunteers who ate the fitness snack exercised less than those who ate the control snack.

The subjects seemed to believe that the fitness snack conferred some physical benefit, says Königstorfer. With the result being that “the more they ate, the lazier they got,” he said.

The researchers calculated that the volunteers who ate more of the snack and exercised less were adding about 70 calories per day to their overall energy intake. That small amount can lead to significant weight gain over time, says Königstorfer.

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So, be cautious when selecting and eating fitness-branded foods, he concludes. “Look at the calorie content and be reminded the product may still have high sugar or fat levels.”

MEGAN SCUDELLARI