Healthy eating is a never-ending game of willpower. Over time, you get more and more skilled at the game, as the attractiveness of poor food choices wears down and you feel a stronger pull toward the foods that make you feel best. Ultimately, you’re able to enjoy a treat and overindulge every once and a while without the intense guilt.
It stands to reason that people who are naturally disciplined will have greater success at eating well, and those who suffer from a “sweet tooth” or impulsivity are doomed to fail.
Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are many factors that play into our food decisions, and the sophisticated world of food marketing may play a much bigger role in your decisions than you think. What you believe to be a lack of willpower or discipline is actually the result of deceptive packaging, clever advertising, and even unethical racial targeting.
I’m a marketer myself, so I have the benefit of understanding exactly what food companies are trying to do: persuade us into making food choices that favor the consumption of their products, regardless of the impact on our health. It’s clever marketing of crap food, and it hides in plain sight to most shoppers.
Let’s reveal some of these shady tactics, shall we? Once you see them for what they are, you can defend yourself from the pull of persuasion.
1. Misleading Claims & Labels
No artificial colors! Now, with protein! Good source of fiber! Walk down any grocery store aisle and the packaging screams all kinds of health claims about the products inside.
It’s a trap.
In 2017, Consumer Reports published an article warning consumers about misleading food packaging claims that are meant to fool us. The article outlines three examples of the most deceptive claims:
When packaging calls out one or two nutrients:
A recent trend is adding protein to packaged goods, like Cheerios Protein Oats & Honey. At first glance, more protein sounds like a great idea. Except that Cheerios Protein Oats & Honey contains 17 grams of sugar compared to the 1 gram of sugar contained in the original Cheerios.
When packaging calls out just one or two nutrients on the front of the label, flip to the back and check out the nutrition facts and ingredients list to see the whole truth.
When the name of the product sounds healthy:
Food companies will give their products a healthy sounding name and show active people in their ads, when in fact their product is essentially candy.
Let’s take CLIF Bar as an example. Man, does that look like a healthy product for people who climb stuff. It even tells you right at the top of the wrapper it provides “nutrition for sustained energy.”
In reality, the classic Chocolate Chip CLIF Bar contains 25 grams of sugar and inflammatory sunflower oil. With that much sugar, you’ll see a short spike in energy then a major crash. Nothing “sustainable” about it.
When “Simple,” “Natural,” or “Free From…” are used:
“Simple” and “natural” packaging claims don’t have to be verified by the FDA, so it’s important to dig into what the food manufacturer actually means when they put those claims on the label. Again, this puts the work on the consumer to read ingredients labels.
“Simple” can mean a short list of poor quality ingredients, often including sugar (natural or artificial) and hydrogenated oils. Many consumers will confuse “natural” for organic, but organic is a regulated claim that verifies the quality of the ingredients used. “Natural” means nothing.
“Free from” claims must be truthful, but the claim often ignores other undesirable ingredients that remain in the product. Again, check those labels!
2. Appealing to Our Identity
The latest Special K ad, “Feed the Change,” is an example of how advertisers position their products as a way to support your personal goals and reinforce your unique identity. They’re trying to say, “we get you, kettlebell swinging lady. Buy our cereal.”
As we discussed earlier, Special K also highlights a few of its nutrients (iron, protein, and B vitamins) to make you believe that the highly processed cereal will deliver the same quality of nutrients as a real-food breakfast like eggs with leafy greens (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). You’re led to believe that Special K is a healthy breakfast choice since these active women seem to enjoy it, and look how hard they’re crushing it at the gym and on the bike trail!
The lesson here is to remember that advertising will always try to make its product relevant to you and your lifestyle (or your aspirational lifestyle) so that the next time you’re buying groceries you’ll select their product over all of the others. Don’t fall for it.
3. Unethical Targeting
A report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that in 2017, black teens saw more than twice as many ads for unhealthy food products as white teens.
Researchers found that fast food, candy, sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks accounted for 86% of food ad spending on black-targeted TV programming, and 82% of ad spending on Spanish-language TV.
“At best, these advertising patterns imply that food companies view black consumers as interested in candy, sugary drinks, fast food and snacks with a lot of salt, fat or sugar, but not in healthier foods.”Study co-author Shiriki Kumanyika, chair of the Council on Black Health at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia.
This deeply disturbing and unethical behavior is incredibly harmful for Hispanic and black youth, who are disproportionately encouraged time and time again to consume junk food that will negatively impact their health.
Wrapping it Up
It’s safe to say that you’ll never look at food packaging and advertisements the same ever again. Welcome to the life of a marketer :). All joking aside, being informed about how products are marketed to consumers should give you some relief. Your perceived lack of discipline or willpower is the result of relentless marketing campaigns by food companies that win when you lose control.
One of the best ways to avoid marketing persuasion is to focus on eating mostly whole, real foods. Real food doesn’t rely on advertising to sell, and you won’t see marketing claims slapped on produce. You can trust that vegetables have no hidden agenda.