Well, that was quick. As ‘pumped up’ and ’excited’ people were about their New Year’s Resolutions, I hate to tell you…but most of these (along with all of the enthusiasm that was present on Jan 1st) have already fizzled out.
Nope, it isn’t my Inner Mean Girl voice saying it’s so. Nor am I making this up as I go along. In fact, researchers have nailed it down to January 12th as The Day Everyone Gives Up. Ok…admittedly, I am being a tad dramatic. It’s not everyone….but it is the majority of resolution-makers. Check out the article here.
It’s really just more proof for what I keep saying: toss the resolution and instead, start a revolution…….. in thinking about what makes sense for you to live your best life.
You’re a Smart Cookie – and there is no reason for you to be fooled by all the marketing bumpf out there about clean eating or being healthy or why this food is better (or faster to prepare or infused with antioxidants or immune-boosting whatevers) than another.
And yet we are! Because food marketers (and full disclosure: I used to be one of them and I was damn good at it!) hold a lot of the cards when it comes to setting our dietary habits.
Between the way they position food in their advertising messages as ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’ or label it with claims that may or may not be relevant or even appropriate (like cholesterol-free on plant products as one example of many), or the sheer amount of money they throw at advertising on every single traditional and digital platform out there – no wonder eaters like you can get really confused, really quickly.
Honestly, that’s what food marketers want. In a world where everyone is time-strapped and bombarded with a plethora of information (not wisdom or knowledge), their goal is to deliver bite-sized, snappy messages that persuade you to pick their product without having to think very hard. Or just wear you down until you succumb to their brainwashing. And yeah, I do believe it’s brainwashing because the more you hear something, the easier it is to believe it’s true, right?
But you know, just like with research studies, my advice about marketing messages is always ‘follow the money’.
Who is really benefitting from you buying these ‘better for you’ products? In general, a marketer’s job is to prepare the market to sell products (so the company makes more money and shareholders stay happy). It’s not to look after your health and help you make the best decisions for your personal health.
That job falls to you – and to professionals like me who are here to help you decode the ‘healthy halo’ PR spin and avoid the marketing traps.
I’m well aware of the struggles you can face when trying to make other healthy-for-you decisions and are faced with confusing or ambiguous info – or worse – intentionally misleading information. We should be able to rely on Canada’s Food Guide to well, guide us along the healthier path. But the food industry and commodity groups have had their sticky little fingers in that pie too and so the current guide really serves the agricultural and food processing industry far more supportively than it prioritizes our personal health.
The updated Guide is due out tomorrow….. so stay tuned and fingers crossed that we’ll see some improvements. But time will tell.
In the meantime – let me give you some pointers about how to be a more discerning food shopper so that you can overlook those deliberately crafted ‘health halos’ and choose more wisely.
Hitting the grocery aisles with eyes wide open
If you’re trying to eat healthier, you already know you should be including lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, lean protein, and some whole grains.
But when you step into a grocery store, things get a bit more complicated. The majority of store shelves are crammed with that tempting assortment of pre-packaged and convenience foods.
So, how do shoppers know which foods are healthy options?
Most people turn to nutrition and health claims found on food packaging labels to help them decide which products to pick and which to skip.
You may think you’re doing a good thing adding “healthful” sounding foods to your cart – but in reality, you may end up taking in way more calories, sugar, and unhealthy ingredients than you intended. This is because most product nutrition claims don’t mean a heck of a lot when it comes to the actual healthfulness of a food. Here’s a dandy little article that outlines a lot of the top misleading claims you might see on foods you regularly buy.
Healthy-sounding claims are actually a marketing strategy used by food manufacturers. Nutrition buzzwords – i.e. “natural, organic, low in calories/fat/sodium, cholesterol-free, lightly sweetened” – are intentionally used to help convince you to buy because it’s better for you.
This concept is known as a health halo – the perceived healthfulness of a product based on a single quality or health claim.
And it works.
Here’s what happened when the health halo was studied…In a shopping mall taste test study, participants were offered two samples of yogurt, cookies, and chips labeled “organic” and “regular.” Participants believed the organic foods were lower in calories and tasted better and healthier compared to the regular foods. And they were willing to pay higher prices for the organic as well.
The upshot? Both the organic and regular samples were the exact same organic foods, proving the power of ‘persuasive’ albeit misleading marketing.
In another study, researchers also concluded that consumers experience less guilt when they believe they’re choosing a healthy option, which then justifies larger portion sizes and increased calorie intake.
There are two buzzwords that are often aligned with making a healthful food choice that we want to highlight as they’re so commonly used – but they’re also two of the most misleading!
Shoppers tend to believe “low in fat” equates to low in calories. Not the case!
When fat is removed from a food, it’s usually replaced with unhealthy ingredients (think chemicals) and sugar (usually lots of it!) to improve texture and flavour.
All that added sugar can increase calorie count big time (hellooo…. bigger waistline) AND end up being worse for your health overall than if you’d just had a serving of the full-fat original.
Common examples of reduced-fat foods perceived as healthy include yogurt (flavoured varieties are loaded with added sugar and other fillers), bottled salad dressing, peanut butter (think cute teddy bears or squirrels), and commercially baked snacks like crackers, muffins and cookies.
The term “gluten-free” has become synonymous with healthy – whether you need to avoid gluten for a bona fide health reason or not.
Gluten-free does NOT equate to low-carb, low-calorie, whole grain, high fibre, low sugar, or organic.
Remember: gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, rye, and barley. A gluten-free food doesn’t contain any of those grains that contain gluten – that’s it.
Yet, you’ll see “gluten-free” slapped on the labels of foods that NEVER contain these ingredients to begin with.
Case in point? Potato chips.
Potato chips (should) contain potatoes, oil, and salt. There are generally no gluten-containing ingredients in chips, but food manufacturers still utilize the “gluten-free” label freely to help drive sales.
And no, sorry, eating an entire bag of fried potato chips isn’t a healthy option – even if the bag reads “gluten-free”. Gluten-free chips, cookies, and snack foods are still chips, cookies, and snack foods.
How to Avoid Falling for Health Halos
On a positive note, just because a food (or food-like) product features a health halo-type claim doesn’t mean you can’t have it. It does however mean you shouldn’t overestimate the healthfulness of a product based on a clever marketing message.
In addition to simply putting your sceptic hat on when shopping, here are 4 tips for how to NOT fall for the messages aimed at selling, not supporting your health:
1. Remember that the purpose of the message is not to inform, but to sell the product. So as you read the nutrition labels and packaging headlines carefully do it with eyes wide open. Think about what your health goals are and whether the information imparted is relevant. And if relevant, is it truthful and clear?
2. Read ingredient lists very carefully. For example, if you’re trying to eliminate added sugars, you’ll want to steer clear of any products that list some form of sweetener in the first few ingredients.
3. Pay attention to the serving sizes that are being used as the measurement for the calories, protein, fat counts, etc. Did you know that the average person generally eats 2-3 times the normal portion size for carbohydrate-heavy and/or salty snack foods? Eek! You may be surprised to see that you are not expected to eat/drink the full amount. And that if you do – those health claims suddenly become laughable!
4. Prepare your own snacks. Avoiding pre-packaged snacks helps you control ingredients. How about trying your hand at baking your own “chips?” The recipe below is just too tempting – and easy! – to pass up!
Recipe: Garlic Chili Lime Chips
- 6 Brown Rice Tortillas (thawed)
- 1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Lime (juiced)
- 1 1/2 tsp Chili Powder
- 1/2 tsp Garlic Powder
- 1/4 tsp Sea Salt
- Preheat oven to 415°F (213ºC) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Combine olive oil, lime juice, chili and garlic powders in a small bowl.
- Brush one side of each tortilla with seasoned olive oil mixture.
- Sprinkle with sea salt and slice tortillas into 1/8’s using a pizza cutter.
- Transfer to the baking sheet and bake for 6 minutes.
- Remove from oven, let cool and enjoy!
Food Quality and Preference, 2013: You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?