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Five Truths About Advertising That the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

Knowing how to read labels will help your health.
nutrition facts, food, food advertising

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In a world full of health claims and ambiguous labels, eating well isn’t easy. In fact, it can be downright confusing. Is this label accurate? Who created it? How do we know that it’s truly healthy?

The food industry has vague answers to these questions, some of which we’ll probably never have answered at all. Thankfully, there are ways to work around the system. Get to know the industry’s techniques, and you’ll be one step ahead. To start you off, here are five advertising truths to be aware of.

01. ‘Natural’ doesn’t mean healthy.

Food companies are pros at selecting words that give off a “health halo.” That is, they use specific terms to influence customers into thinking they are buying a healthy product. How many times have you chosen a snack because it says sugar-free or all-natural on the package? Unfortunately, when it comes to food, these words are quite unclear.

When we’re told to ditch the boxes and eat our greens, “natural” sounds like a smart choice . . . right? Not necessarily. “The word ‘natural’ hasn’t been clearly defined by the Food and Drug Administration, the organization in charge of food labeling,” says Katerina Melekos, RDN, a registered dietitian in New Jersey. She points out that companies use the term to market products containing plant ingredients. But this doesn’t mean that the product isn’t processed and stripped of all its vitamins—two factors that can turn a plant from fab to drab.

The high prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the U.S. is the perfect example. “Many packaged foods on the market are made with HFCS, which is made from corn,” Melekos says. And because corn is a plant, the FDA can label it as natural. This is where the situation gets sticky.

HFCS is the food industry’s dream ingredient. It brings in flavor, it’s inexpensive to make, and it has a long shelf life. According to Frontiers in Nutrition, it also happens to be the main culprit of America’s obesity epidemic. In the past five decades, obesity rates have risen alongside increased HFCS consumption. High intake of HFCS is also linked to Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and even impaired cognitive function. Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigation associates HFCS with liver damage and cancers of the colon and pancreas. In a nutshell, HFCS is anything but healthy.

Yet, when labeled with the word “natural,” we perceive a product with HFCS as healthy. Knowing the regulations, or lack thereof, for this word can help you make more educated food choices.

And we can’t forget about “real.” Much like “natural,” the word “real” is often used in misleading ways. A product can be made with real fruit, but it doesn’t mean the product is real fruit. Once upon a time, the fruit used was whole. But now? Not so much. The end product could have 2 percent fruit, 98 percent sugar, and zero percent health.

Instead of relying on these broad descriptions, get to know how nutrition labels work. It’s always best to opt for fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. You can never go wrong with those.

02. ‘Low’ and ‘free’ aren’t always such.

Companies use health halo terms to do more than just describe a food’s realness. They can also refer to the content claim of specific components, such as fat, salt, or sugar. Because these components are things we’re told to limit, terms such as “low-fat” and “salt-free” sound appealing. Melekos points out that foods with these labels aren’t much healthier than others.

“Any time an ingredient is taken out of a product, something has to be added to save the flavor,” Melekos says. Often, extra sodium is used to preserve taste and shelf stability. Melekos explains that sugar-free products also have added fat to improve taste, while fat-free foods have added sugar for the same reason. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute warns that these foods may not be low in calories even if they are low in fat, sugar, or salt.

03. Suggested serving sizes are not accurate.

Food companies are smart. The trick to making food seem healthier comes down to altering the serving size. Companies know that consumers overlook this, and they use it to their advantage. Melekos uses sodium as an example. “A product can have less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving, but those servings can be very small,” she says. Because the FDA’s definition of low sodium is 140 milligrams per serving, that product can be marketed as low sodium. However, realistic servings are much larger, resulting in consuming a large amount of sodium from a “low sodium” food. There goes that health halo again.

It doesn’t stop there. There’s a myriad of content claim ranges, making it even more confusing for consumers. For example, here are the content claims of sodium from the FDA:

  • Low Sodium or Contains Small Amounts of Sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
  • Reduced Sodium or Less Sodium: 25 percent less sodium than original item
  • Light in Sodium: At least 50 percent less sodium than original item
  • Very Low Sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
  • No Salt Added or Unsalted: No additional salt was added to the product in processing
  • Lightly Salted: 50 percent less sodium added during processing than normally added to original food

If your head is spinning, we don’t blame you. These labels are the type of health halos that trip up consumers. Mayo Clinic states that high sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. So it’s ideal to limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day. Yet, the average American consumes about 3,500 milligrams daily, according to Pamela Gerstman, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and certified dietitian-nutritionist in New York. Content claims, however, make it hard to judge a food’s true sodium content.

To work around these devious labels, Gerstman recommends checking the serving size before purchasing a product. If the sodium content is less than 250 milligrams for a realistic serving size, then go for it. If the serving size seems impractical–such as a quarter cup of soup–then it’s not the best choice.

04. Ingredients go by many names.

Here’s another reason to brush up on nutrition labels: Ingredients have many disguises. They exist in different forms, each with a different name. Let’s take sugar, for example. “There are about thirty names for sugar, each one seemingly different,” Gerstman says. “Molasses, HFCS, brown rice syrup, sucrose, sorbitol, honey . . . they’re all sugar.”

These forms don’t even include the sugar found in whole foods, such as fruits. Between processed and natural sugars, Gerstman warns that it can all add up, and fast. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, high sugar intake can lead to weight gain, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. So it’s vital to your health to limit sugar consumption.

This is where some food savviness comes in. Gerstman suggests getting to know the code words for specific ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners (aka saccharin), salt (aka disodium), and trans fat (aka partially hydrogenated oil). While there’s no need to break out the index cards, just familiarizing yourself with these terms will put you ahead of the game.

Gerstman also explains that if an ingredient is first or second on the list, the product is made mostly of that ingredient. This is where those disguises sneak in. Honey might be the second ingredient, followed by brown sugar and corn syrup down the line. They may seem like different constituents, but they’re all just masks for sugar.

05. Food makeovers exist.

We’ve often scoffed at the media for using Photoshop on humans. The airbrushing doesn’t stop there, though. Thanks to technology, it’s easy to make the unhealthiest foods look fresh and wholesome. “The food industry knows that we eat with our eyes,” Melekos says. “They’ll do anything to make their product look amazing.” There’s a reason why fast food meals look sadder than their commercial counterparts. The magic of color corrections and light adjustments is real.

A drab burger with wilted veggies can transform into one with crisp, fresh lettuce and thick slices of tomato. Much like fashion and modeling, stylists are a vital part of food photography. Armed with superglue, markers, and makeup, food stylists manipulate products to look their very best. National Geographic shares that cooked chicken is often painted with a special brown mixture, and strawberries are touched up with lipstick. Soap bubbles top off a “freshly poured” glass of milk or cup of coffee, while eyeliner is handy for drawing grill marks on vegetables. For the multi-billion-dollar food industry, it’s all about technique, artistry, and making food look better than it seems.

While we can’t stop food stylists from doing their thing, being more aware of these techniques can help us make more educated decisions. Choose food based on how it has been processed and prepared instead of what you see in a carefully styled advertisement.

Now that you know the concepts and techniques behind the food industry’s ways, making wiser choices at the grocery store or restaurants will hopefully be a more intentional process than, “Well, that looks good. That sounds healthy.” Of course, don’t expect to know it all overnight. Start slow. Take time to observe different food labels, ingredient lists, photos, and claims when you’re out and about. Even the smallest steps will make big improvements for your health.