This article first appeared last week as a guest blog post for the amazing WellnessFX team. Thank you for having me, guys!
When it comes to healthy eating, it is all too common to rely on packaging, marketing, and the media to tell us what to eat. Making decisions based on colors, pseudo health statements, and nutritional labels can render grocery shopping confusing and potentially harmful. If you don’t shop exclusively for all of your products at a farmer’s market, chances are you navigate aisles of plastic-wrapped “food products.” Here are 10 techniques food marketers use to convince you to buy more. Be on the lookout for them to avoid getting fooled!
1. Hype-Riders: Some companies capitalize on current health learnings and trends (Omega-3s, probiotics) and supplement their products with the latest, in order to increase sales. For example: A new milk sold by Horizon Organic, advertises in big letters “DHA Omega-3.” A higher Omega-3 content can actually be achieved through pasture-raising cows, and providing them with a better, healthier diet. However, a flip of the milk carton reveals that Horizon Organic has done none of this, but rather has added algae oil (rich in Omega-3s) to their milk, in an artificial attempt to increase the Omega-3 content. Similarly, Udi’s added probiotics to their granola bars, simply because they are a popular supplement. Avoid the trap of buying blindly based on a buzzword, and don’t forget to think about the underlying product.
2. Redundant Claims: “Coconut water: vegan!” “Seaweed: gluten free!” “Prunes: no cholesterol!” Promises like these on a packaging are usually unnecessary and tout attributes that are common knowledge, perhaps trying to target a lesser-informed buyer. Here is a recap:
- Cholesterol only comes from animal foods (there will never be cholesterol in any grain, fruit, or vegetable).
- Anything that does not contain any animal products, will be vegan.
- Gluten comes from wheat and other grains.
Stop and ask yourself: Is this claim obvious and only trying to make a product more attractive?
3. Fortifying to up-sell: Perhaps the oldest trick in the book, fortifying appeared as a tool to market breakfast cereals and now extends across all aisles of the supermarket. Fortifying is the process of adding synthetic compounds (vitamins, minerals) to processed food products in an attempt to make them seem healthier by improving their nutritional content. For example, you might see ‘A Good source of 6 B vitamins and calcium’, ‘100% daily value of 12 vitamins and minerals’.
Food marketers try to make you think the minerals/vitamins/antioxidants are naturally occuring, when in fact, they are sprayed on or mixed in during manufacturing. Most fortified products mask unhealthy ingredients that the fortification is trying to make up for, such as high fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar. Prioritize reading the ingredient list: it’s valuable to know that ingredients are listed in the order of the highest amount used in the product, to the least amount. If sugar in any form is in the top 3, the product is not as healthy as you may think, and the presence of synthetic vitamins shouldn’t be a reason to purchase it.
4. ‘Natural’ nonsense: What does it mean for a food to be marketed as ‘Natural’? Actually, the FDA hasn’t developed any definition for the use of this term, which means any package can bear the phrases ‘100% natural’, ‘all natural’… without having to answer to any regulation. Any extremely processed sugar-laden product can have ‘100% Natural’ on its box if the marketers deem it useful. View the long list of ingredients on the VitaTops packaging and determine for yourself if this is a healthy product to you.
5. Deceptive Nutrition Labels: Look at any Nutrition Label on the back of a food product. You’ll notice the lack of daily recommended value for protein and sugar. According the the FDA, protein intake is not a public health concern, therefore no percentage of daily value is needed. For sugars, they state that “No recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day.” Food marketers take advantage of this loophole to avoid alarming consumers about the enormous quantities of sugar in processed foods. Although we know that sugar has harmful health effects and no nutritional benefit, consumers are not given any indication as to how much they are eating. Here is something to keep in mind: the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 to 40g of added sugars per day. Were this information to be visible, a consumer would be made aware that a single serving of the dessert below would count toward 45% of the daily recommended sugar intake.
In Europe, the daily recommended intake is 90 grams of sugar per day (including added and naturally occurring), and the Nutrition Label does indeed reflect this.
6. Sneaky Trans Fats. Trans fats have been proven to cause heart disease and are slowly being removed from circulation in most developing countries. In US supermarkets however, if a product has less than 0.5g of trans fats per serving, the FDA allows the food label to read ‘0 grams trans fats per serving’. This measure is misleading. These hidden heart-disease-promoting trans fats can add up quickly, especially since most products containing them make sure the serving size is small enough for the ‘0 trans fats’ label to be allowed.
How to spot them is simple: any mention of ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oil directly implies the presence of trans fats, and you should avoid that product, despite what the packaging says.
7. Question asterisks: Many packages make general health statements (“Can help reduce cholesterol”, “May lower the risk of heart disease”)- twisting the truth and questionably referencing scientific studies. A simple guideline: If a food has to promote its healthiness this way, you should question whether or not it’s actually going to be good for you. The most common use of these claims is on cereal packaging. Food marketers assert that the small amounts of fiber in cereal may help reduce the risk of heart disease* (*along with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol). This claim is based on weak observational study evidence from the 1970’s which gave rise to the low-fat-high-carb movement. Its flawed scientific reasoning has recently come into light.
Interestingly, manufacturers fail to mention that the large quantities of sugar present (usually in the top 3 ingredients of their ingredient list), will increase the risk of chronic diseases, diabetes, and obesity. Be aware that food marketers pick and choose what to mention and what to leave out.
8. Using ‘Fat free’ as a selling point. Especially since the 80’s, we have been conditioned to believe that a fat free product is good for weight control. New studies are showing that fat doesn’t make you fat, and that sugar is actually to blame. Anything ‘fat-free’ will typically contain added sugars (check the ingredients list) to make up for a lack of taste. ‘Fat free’ in processed foods more often entails ‘lots of calories, very sweet, and a high glycemic index’. It’s better to go for a product higher in good fats (like those found in avocados, and fish) and lower in sugars. Beware of a health claim promoted as a selling point on packaging, and remember that marketing messages are not to be confused with nutritional advice.
9. Multi-Grain is an empty promise: While ‘Whole Grain’ requires that the grains used in a food product have not been stripped of their kernel (therefore containing more healthy fiber and vitamins), ‘Multi-Grain’ doesn’t mean much. The FDA has not given a definition of the ‘multi-grain’ label, which means it can be used liberally on any packaging. For instance, Kellogg’s Club Crackers are advertised as Multi-Grain, but only contain a single grain: wheat flour, along with ‘2% or less’ of ‘degerminated yellow corn flour’. If you are trying to buy healthier grain-based products, focus on ‘Whole Grain’ rather than ‘Multi-Grain’.
10. Serving size: This is one of the classic marketing traps which make a product look healthier than it actually is. In general, the serving size does not reflect an actual ‘normal’ serving. Therefore, the calories and nutrient quantities you truly ingest are much greater than expected by a glance at the label. A well-known example of this is the 20-oz Coca-Cola bottle. If you look at the Nutrition Label, it implies there are 2.5 servings of 100 Calories and 30 grams of sugar in a bottle. But who shares a Coke with another 1.5 people? When you drink the entire bottle (as one does), you are ingesting 2.5 servings and a whooping total of 275 calories and 75 grams of sugar… To be fully aware of what you are consuming, make sure to pay close attention to the ‘Servings Per Container’ line.
Make informed choices and don’t be afraid to be skeptical of what you see on the packaging of food products. The ingredient list is your best friend – make it a habit to read it! If you want to move away from these marketing and food product traps, try to buy foods which come in their natural form, such as fruits, vegetables, meats and fish. What other steps can you take to not fall into these food marketing traps?
Photo credits: all mine! (that was one long day at Safeway)