It’s that time of the year again when people are perhaps more health-conscious than they otherwise would be making New Year’s resolutions to “eat better” to take care of themselves. The food companies know that this all-too-predictable phenomena happens and responding by going into full-on marketing mode to reach these consumers to strike while the proverbial iron is hot. I don’t blame them for doing this because it’s smart business from their standpoint. But the problem is the consumer doesn’t necessarily know how to discern the genuinely healthy items from the unhealthy ones. I sure wouldn’t have back in the day before I became enlightened about all this stuff I now know about nutrition and healthy living. While I was looking around in my local Sam’s Club this morning, I found an interesting product from a company called Popcorn, Indiana that demonstrates perfectly how food companies convince unsuspecting people wanting to “eat better” that their crappy foods are somehow healthy for them. Here’s how they do it:
1. Name the product something that sounds healthy.
Who wouldn’t want to eat “Fit Popcorn” made with “Real Butter?” People already have a positive image of popcorn in their minds as being a health food (mostly because it’s low in fat), so it’s not a large mental leap for them to believe this is a good product for them to be consuming more of. After the name of the product, the consumer then can’t help but see huge health claims.
2. List the supposed good health aspects on front packaging.
Right there on the front packaging of this Fit Popcorn, you see that there are only 30 calories per cup, it’s made with non-GMO ingredients and is certified gluten-free. They prop these things up as extra important by putting them in big red circles on the front, but they’re not really a big deal. The quantity of calories in that VERY SMALL portion of popcorn (1/4 the portion size) isn’t as important as the quality of those calories (FYI: it’s almost ALL carbohydrates). While I’m glad they don’t use GMO corn (UPDATE: they don’t mention the corn isn’t GMO, just that it contains non-GMO ingredients…turns out they’re referring to the canola oil! Sneaky sneaky!), the next marketing claim is absurd since corn is already gluten-free. Let’s take a look at a popular symbol put on products giving them the official seal of approval as “healthy.”
3. Use the American Heart Association’s “Heart-Healthy” symbol.
People are still very trusting of traditional health organizations and so having a logo with a heart and check mark in the middle giving permission from the most recognized heart health organization in America is a powerful image in the minds of the consumer. When you see the requirements to use this Heart-Check Mark on food products, it’s all about low-fat, low-cholesterol, and low-sodium nutritional content. As long as people remain fat-phobic, this will continue to resonate with the consumer trying to figure out what they need to eat to be healthy. Let’s flip the product to the backside to see what kind of information they’re promoting there.
4. List various health platitudes to prop up the product.
After being exposed to the name of the product, seeing the main health claims on the front packaging, and seeing the American Heart Association telling you this is a “heart-healthy” product to eat, the consumer then turns the product over on the back and sees this laundry list of health claims. “All natural?” This is the biggest crock of them all because it has NO meaning at all. A “good source of fiber” sounds good until you realize the fiber is from the fact that corn is a grain (not a vegetable as many believe). “Zero cholesterol” is another idiotic one because it insinuates that dietary cholesterol impacts blood cholesterol levels. You’ll also see the Whole Grain Council has their obnoxious whole grain symbol next to the AHA and gluten-free ones. But did you know there was a symbol for “The Biggest Loser Approved?” In this February 2013 announcement of this partnership, they say it’s all about “living a healthier lifestyle.” Who could be against that?
Now that the consumer has been exposed to all this bombardment of marketing, the food companies are desperately hoping they don’t notice two other parts of the packaging–the Nutrition Facts and the Ingredients–that are arguably the MOST important. And the problem is most people never both to look at these things or they don’t understand what they mean. Let’s look at those now:
While there is no sugar in this product, it contains 6-7 times as many carbohydrates (which turn to sugar in the body) as it does fat or protein. I’m sure the Popcorn, Indiana people are very proud of the fact their product is so low in fat with just a half-gram of saturated fat in it. That’s not a lot of butter content in that “real butter” claim from the front packaging. How about that ingredients list–let’s take a look.
Again, they think they’re doing the consumer a favor by using non-GMO canola oil, but it’s still a very unhealthy oil to eat. I’ll give Popcorn, Indiana credit for trying to have a product that is “better,” it’s just not improved enough to be called healthy. They’ll vehemently disagree with me about this, but the truth is your body will not be healthier if you eat this stuff. And yet people will buy into all the marketing and wonder what’s wrong with THEM when they gain weight and their health gets worse.
If you’re new to being genuinely aware about your food, then the information I’ve shared in this post may come as a complete shock. But you’re not alone–we’ve all been there and played the marketing games for many years before having our eyes opened. Keep learning, read nutrition facts and ingredients like a hawk, and make better choices for the sake of your health. It may seem overwhelming, but the solution is to stick to real, whole foods as much as possible and to stop trying to find health in a bag, box or package. Be well in 2014 and let me know how I can help you in your journey.