As consumers, we're becoming more interested in eating health-promoting foods. Advertisements and packaging are supposed to help us do this by promoting awareness and enabling us to make educated choices. But the reality is that marketing strategies tend to focus more on raising sales than providing accurate product information to the consumer.
If you haven't noticed this, don't worry. It's because you're not supposed to notice how food marketing influences food choices (and you are definitely not supposed to notice how it influences your children). Adverts and packaging are littered with words like "healthy", "natural", and "nutritious", so it's easy to fall for the illusion that by purchasing these products we are making "better" food choices. We're not.
Research shows that consumers significantly underestimate the calorie content in food when it is labeled "healthy" or "organic". On top of this, it's also been shown that consumers perceive these foods as more appropriate to eat every day. Essentially, what we are doing is evaluating the healthfulness of an item based on a single attribute, instead of according to all of its attributes. This is called the "health halo" effect and it has a significant impact on what we choose to eat.
Food packaging is the first thing we see when grocery shopping. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada both understand its importance. That's why they regulate the language that can be used to market food to consumers. However, there are loopholes that enable marketers to consistently exploit certain words.
Food packaging, according to regulation, has to tell us what exactly is in the food we're buying. And it does, but usually in very small print, and often in an out-of-the-way position on the back of the pack. On the front of packaging marketers use big, bold letters and bright, colorful imagery to make many foods sound more healthful than they really are. Here are two examples of this...
1) Fruit Juices
Look at the bottles and cartons of fruit juices. Chances are you'll see phrases like "100% Natural", "100% Juice", "No Added Sugar", "No Artificial Flavouring", and "With Vitamin C". Alongside these words you'll see big pictures of different fruit, often on bright backgrounds.
Experts say that these claims have given fruit juice, which has a high concentration of sugar, an underserved "health halo". “Liquid calories don’t satiate, and they don’t pack the fiber and phytonutrients of actual fruit,” explains Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an MD and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, in a post on his blog titled “Juice is NOT a F@*&ing Fruit Part II”.
Dr. Freedhoff has been campaigning for years for a revamped Canadian Food Guide and advocating (among other changes) to eliminate fruit juices from their recommendations. His efforts, along with the efforts of many others, have not gone unnoticed: the most recent edition of the Canadian Food Guide changed the decade-long policy that equated half a glass (125ml) of 100% fruit juice to one actual serving of fruits or vegetables. The new guide now recommends plain water as the beverage of choice. This as part of a quest to reduce overall sugar intake across the nation. The issue with sugar is that most of us consume too much of it, especially in the form of liquid calories (think sodas, juices and sports drinks).
Of course, it's reasonable to think that fruit juice has similar benefits to actual, whole fruit. However, some of the best parts are taken out during the juice-making process. There's no apple skin in apple juice, there's zero (or minimal) fibrous membrane in orange juice, and there’s probably no raspberry or strawberry seeds present in a berry smoothie. These things which would "ruin" a juice drink have definite purposes--they aide satiation and slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, for example. So, if you have to choose, go for a piece of fruit and a glass of water instead of a glass of fruit juice.
2) Vegetable Chips
"Eat more vegetables" has been an almost universal recommendation over the past decade. As expected, the food industry has been quick to adapt by launching a variety of food products that include vegetables. One market opportunity this has created? Vegetable chips. Chips, but healthy chips. Chips for people who want to "eat better". Chips for people who want to eat more vegetables. Chips for people who care about health but still value convenience. I remember when chips were made mostly from potatoes, corn or wheat (like Lays, Doritos and pita chips). Nowadays, as well as traditional chips, there are kale chips, beet chips, veggie sticks and even cauliflower puffs.
But how do vegetable chips differ from traditional potato chips? Are they a better snacking choice, as many believe? What about the ones that have claims on the front like “natural”, “gluten-free” and “no cholesterol”? Are they much better than ordinary, plain, crunchy, salty potato chips? If we compare their nutritional content, then yes--some vegetable chip brands are lower in calories, fat and salt than their traditional counterparts. Which makes it much easier to feel good about eating more of them, more often. However, while it is definitely true that vegetable chips contain at least some of the vegetable they claim to be chipped from, how much of that vegetable varies wildly from product to product.
In many countries food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts. Here are some examples of ingredients found in brands of vegetable chips at my local supermarket:
- “Brussel Sprout Puffs”. The slogan on their website? ”Finally, your kids will ask for delicious Brussel Sprouts!” However, the first three ingredients listed on the packaging are "Organic Wholegrain Sorghum Flour", "Organic Sunflower or Safflower Oil", and "Nutritional Yeast". Brussel Sprout Powder is the fifth ingredient on the list.
- "Veggie Chips - Original". Their tagline? “We take organic potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and spices and create a simply delicious snacking experience” According to the Nutrition Facts box, the ingredients are (in descending order): Organic Potato Flour, Organic Sunflower and/or Organic Safflower Oils, Organic Corn Flour, Organic Potato Starch, Organic Cornstarch, Organic Rice Flour, Salt, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Tomato Powder, Organic Spinach Powder, Organic Turmeric, Organic Beetroot Powder. This product has more salt and sugar than spinach and tomato.
You may be thinking, "What is the problem?" Well, there isn't one, as long as you realize that vegetable chips are still chips. They're a snack, not a replacement for a serving of real vegetables. If you want to eat chips, vegetable chips or kale chips, or chips made from whatever combination of vegetables, do. But if your goal is to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables, then chips--however vegetabl-y--are not the way to do it.
The "health halo" makes fruit juice and vegetable chips seem so much more healthful. But there's another issue: these foods taste good. They are designed to be liked. To hit what is called the "bliss point". In his book, Salt Sugar Fat, journalist Michael Moss describe the “bliss point” as "the precise amount of sugar, fat or salt that will send consumers over the moon." He says, "The bliss point is a powerful phenomenon and dictates what we eat and drink more than we realize."
When the mix is right, food becomes more stimulating and makes us want to eat more. Food companies, for years, have been developing foods with the perfect combination of sugar, fat and salt, all in order to promote overconsumption. Interestingly, this stimulating combination of high levels of sugar and fat doesn’t generally occur in nature. There are lots of natural sugars in fruits and roots, and there is plenty of fat in nuts and seeds, but rarely do you find them together in a single, natural food source.
So, as consumers, what can we do? Simple. Most of the claims on the FRONT of food packaging (highlighted ingredients, added nutrients, implied health benefits, a special cooking style) are marketing tactics. Disregard them. Take a moment to look past them and READ THE LABELS. Any information found on the back label is what the company is legally obligated to tell you, and that includes nutritional facts and a list of ingredients sorted (in descending order) by quantity. Pay special attention to the first three ingredients. These are the ingredients that weigh the most and make up the bulk of the product.
Don't be fooled by false claims and savvy marketing. Look closer, make more deliberate decisions, and eat better food.