The current issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition includes a commentary co-authored by myself and public health attorney Michele Simon. The piece is a response to the recent – and ongoing – debate surrounding front of package labeling.
Archive for the ‘marketing’ Category
A few weeks ago, I learned of a relatively new blog largely centered around food industry deception, but with an interesting twist — its author, Bruce Bradley, is a former Big Food marketer!
Specifically, Mr. Bradley spent over fifteen years as a food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. He has since, in his words, “become more educated about the risks and environmental impact of eating processed foods”, and is now a CSA enthusiast.
I recently asked Mr. Bradley some questions that I thought someone with his unique background and experience could really shed some light on:
I enjoy keeping up with Big Food’s product releases. Not only is it mind-blowing to see how many different ways you can rearrange crop subsidies, unhealthful oils, and added sugars to come up with “new” items; it’s also fun to see what front-of-package health claims and call-outs are trotted out.
The three products below may be new on the shelf, but the “wholesome and healthy” deception is the same old dog and pony show.
Food companies love to market what I refer to as “gendered foods”; that is, products that perpetuate the classic (and socially constructed) “this is for boys, this is for girls” dichotomy.
Despite their proclamations of “addressing a particular concern” to a particular segment of the population, these gendered products are, in all actuality, “unisex” ones backed with highly gendered marketing campaigns. In a 2009 post, I briefly touched upon “his” and “hers” vitamins. This time around, let’s examine three of the bigger gendered food players.
Last night I was grateful and honored to have a reserved seat for a talk given by Dr. Marion Nestle at The University of Washington to a sold-out audience of over 400 students, faculty members, and food policy buffs (the lecture was open to the general public).
What follows is a bullet-point, Cliffs Notes style recap of Dr. Nestle’s presentation; consider it a crash course in food politics 101!
Over the past few months I have seen an increasing number of beef products at the supermarket labeled “vegetarian-fed”.
It really is the sign of a messed up food system when a cow eating the way it’s supposed to (all cows are naturally vegetarian) commands a special sticker and a premium.
What disturbs me even more, though, is that “vegetarian-fed” cattle could still be — and very likely, are — eating a very unhealthy diet.
It is very probable these cows are subsisting on a vegetarian diet of corn and wheat, two foods their digestive tracts are not used to, and therefore can cause a multitude of health problems.
I have a sneaking suspicion that “vegetarian-fed” advertising is meant to confuse customers into thinking they are purchasing grass-fed beef products.
FYI 1: In case you’re wondering, some cows in feedlots are not only fed that unnatural corn-and-wheat diet; they also have ground up meat and bones included in that mix! You can thank that aberration for the developing of mad cow disease!
FYI 2: Since “vegetarian-fed” is not a claim regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, the lack of that statement on a beef product does not necessarily mean you are purchasing meat from a cow that ate ground up bits of its own kind.
This month’s Food Product Design trade magazine shares consumer, media, and market research giant Mintel Solutions’s 2008 statistics on product development in the food industry.
Much to my initial surprise, “during 2008, ‘natural’ was the most-frequent claim on new foods and beverages. [In the United States,] one-third [of products sported] the claim, up 16% from 2007.”
I scratched my head pondered over this factoid for a few minutes. Why would food companies choose “natural” as a selling point? Why not brag about Omega-3 fortification or whole grain inclusion?
Then, it hit me.
There is no legal definition for “natural.” The Food & Drug Administration has not defined what products can — and can’t — use that term in their advertising.
Much to food companies’ liking, consumers associate “natural” with healthy, low in calories, and nutritious. While that is certainly true if you’re talking about pears or tomatoes, it doesn’t apply to other “100% natural” products like high fructose corn syrup, 7Up, and Cheetos white cheddar puffs.
This phenomenon is not contained within the 50 states. “On a global scale, ‘natural’ claims appeared on almost one in four (23%) new products.”
Sixty-three percent of respondents supported that form of advertising, eight percent did not, and the remaining twenty-seven percent did not have a strong opinion either way.
I strongly favor that sort of advertising.
Many nutrition advocates do not, claiming it confuses children to see Spongebob on baby carrots as well as a box of sugary fruit snacks.
My main concern with that argument is that it attempts to view the world through the eyes of a child who has the marketing awareness of an adult.
Six-year-olds are not aware of nutrition. They don’t understand the difference in nutrients between a fruit snack and a real fruit. Seeing their favorite cartoon character on different products doesn’t confuse them — it simply draws their eyes and attention to them!
In my opinion, too many nutrition advocates make the crucial mistake of forgetting that they, too, can implement the same tactics used by food companies.
Getting children interested in eating healthier food by simply branding it with cartoon characters is certainly far from utopian, but it’s a significant step forward we need to pursue.
A 20 ounce bottle of Snapple Mixed-Up Berry Iced Tea contains 13 teaspoons of added sugar (in the form of high fructose corn syrup).
The truly frightening part is that sugar appears before tea in the ingredient list (meaning that, by weight, there is more sugar than tea.)
The Snapple website, meanwhile, devotes an entire section to the health benefits of tea. That’s akin to talking about the healthful properties of broccoli and sweet potatoes only to deep fry them in tempura batter!
Thirteen teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup in tea? They might want to rethink the “made from the best stuff on Earth” slogan.
Less than two hours ago, Reuters reported that The Center for Science in the Public Interest “filed a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola Co, accusing the company of making deceptive health claims about its Vitamin Water beverages.”
Can’t say I disagree.
It is precisely Vitamin Water’s cutesy and health-oriented advertising that has resulted in “I don’t drink soda” types buying into what is, essentially, vitamin-fortified sugar water.
For more information on this beverage, please read this “You Ask/I Answer” post from August of 2007.
Coca Cola, meanwhile, is dismissing this as an attention-seeking move by CSPI, claiming their nutrition facts label tells an accurate tale.
Okay, but that is not what CSPI is challenging.
Rather, it is “the company’s claims [that] the drinks reduce the risk of chronic disease and eye disease, promote healthy joints and support immune function” that are being called out as deceptive.
There is also the issue of the particular names attributed to each flavor (including “defense”, “energy”, and “rescue”).
Obviously, Vitamin Water depends on those healthy-sounding terms for sales.
Otherwise, their fruit punch flavor would simply be named “fruit punch” rather than “revive.”
I strongly support more regulation surrounding health claims on these types of products. What are your thoughts?
Does that have any nutritional implications?
Is it similar to a whole wheat bread?
– Mariana (last name withheld)
(city withheld), NJ
The literal way to produce stoneground flour is to grind it solely in stone mills (rather than conventional roller mills.)
Most conventional breads sold at supermarkets (which I assume are the ones you are asking about), however, use the term as a healthy-sounding catchphrase in an attempt to confuse consumers who are looking for healthier breads.
The main problem here is that the Food & Drug Administration has not drafted a legal definition of “stoneground.” It can basically mean whatever food companies want it to mean!
This is very much akin to the lack of definition of the term “natural ingredients,” which permitted 7-Up to launch a “made with all natural ingredients” campaign a few years back.
Most major bread companies can get away with labeling their breads as “stone ground” if the flour has gone through a stone mill just one time.
This is all irelevant, though. White flour has the same nutritional profile regardless of the type of mill it is processed in.
The most important thing to look for when purchasing bread is that the first ingredient is a WHOLE flour.
Any word other than whole — such as “stoneground”, “unbleached”, or “enriched” — means the main ingredient is white flour with virtually no fiber.
I am sure you have all been on pins and needles awaiting the results of Burger King’s Whopper Virgins experiment. Or not.
Well, the wait is over!
And wouldn’t you know it — the majority of those “weird third world villagers who have never heard of a burger” prefer the Whopper to rival McDonald’s Big Mac.
Wondering how the burgers stayed hot and palatable in desolate areas of the world, far from any Burger King?
Turns out the “expedition team” shuttled villagers to the closest city and had them bite into their first Whopper — in front of a video camera no less — in some sort of warehouse.
Supposedly, said warehouse had both a Burger King and McDonald’s nearby, ensuring that both chains’ offerings would be in a participant’s mouth no more than 15 minutes after being purchased by the expedition team.
All this trouble to find out which corn-fed beef patty topped with high-fructose corn syrup ketchup and a single pathetic wilted leaf of lettuce is the more superior one? I don’t get it.
Burger King chronicles their worldwide journey in this 7 minute, 8 second “cinematic piece”.
Apart from seeing images of these “researchers” in remote third world areas (including scenes where they cook Burger King hamburgers for a small village in a portable broiler displaying the fast food chain’s logo), we get to hear choice quotes like:
“[Some of these people] didn’t even know how to pick [a hamburger] up.”
Oh, wow! How backwards! And the majority of Americans don’t know how to hold chopsticks properly. Your point?
The team is incredulous when a man practically missing all his teeth chooses to tear off a part of his burger rather than bite into it.
So incredulous, actually, that they instruct him to take a bite.
“You can not get an entirely pure taste from a group of Americans because they have been exposed to so much advertising.”
Partially true, but this isn’t only a problem in the United States. Fast food and soft drink advertising crosses borders and makes it to some very remote areas.
Have these people never heard of blind tastings? Simply blindfold your subjects (right here in the USA!), ask them to take a bite of Burger 1, a bite of Burger 2, and tell you which one tastes best to them.
And for all his “marketing virginity” talk, isn’t “rewarding” those who selected the Whopper as their favorite of the two burgers with their very own Burger King cookout a form of advertising?
I am still waiting for the press release informing everyone this is a spoof along the lines of Waiting for Guffman or This Is Spinal Tap.
This New York Times article — centered around a French marketing expert and American attitudes towards food and nutrition — makes the following case: health claims like “trans fat free” and “low fat” create a “health halo,” providing consumers with a false sense of security, and ultimately making them more susceptible to overeating.
When random Americans in a nutritionally conscious Brooklyn neighborhood were asked to estimate the number of calories in an Applebee’s meal, they overshot by an average of 100 calories.
Good news so far.
However, when that meal included two crackers labeled “trans fat free,” those additional 100 calories went seemingly unnoticed!
Furthermore, the total caloric count of that meal received lower estimates than that of the cracker-less photograph.
Meanwhile, “[foreign tourists in Times Square] correctly estimated that the meal with crackers had more calories than the meal without crackers.”
Sounds simple (more food = more calories), but this French professor of marketing contends that health halos can blind us from seeing the larger picture.
The theory is that foreigners, most of whom stem from countries where nutrition and weight loss mainly concerns calories (rather than specific nutrients), are not deceived by what Marion Nestle calls “calorie distractors.”
What is a calorie distractor, you ask?
Any kind of claim that makes you forget the total caloric impact of what you are eating (i.e.: tortilla chips containing a mere sprinkle of flaxseed and soy protein, or Gummi candies with as much ALA Omega-3 as four walnuts.)
The article also mentions a most fascinating experiment conducted by this French researcher and Brian Wansink last year.
“After giving people a chance to order either a Big Mac or a 12-inch Italian sandwich from Subway, the people ordering the subway sandwich [which has more caloric than a Big Mac] were more likely to add a large nondiet soda and cookies to the order, end[ing] up with meals averaging 56 percent more calories than the meals ordered from McDonald’s.”
This article cements a lot of the concepts commonly discussed in this blog. Let’s recap:
1. Forget about “good” and “bad” foods. Instead, focus on the big picture. A donut and coffee breakfast is not worth fretting about if it only happens once a week.
2. Above all, think calories. Whole wheat pasta covered in 500-calorie Alfredo sauce is not a healthier choice than that same amount of “white” pasta accompanied by 100 calories of marinara sauce.
3. Don’t be fooled by claims of “a day’s worth of vitamins” or “x milligrams of Omega 3″ on boxes of high-calorie, sugar and sodium laden junk foods. You might as well down a Centrum pill in between bites of a King Size Snickers bar.
Remember — the less processed your diet, the less you have to worry about scavenging the supermarket aisles for sugar-free, vitamin fortified, and low sugar Frankenfoods.
That is a higher advertising budget than Apple Computers’!
Candy and gum advertising in 2006, you ask? Oh, in the $500 – $550 million range.
Meanwhile, the Five A Day campaign, which promoted eating five servings of vegetables on a daily basis, spent slightly less than $10 million in advertising the year before.
We are all susceptible to marketing, especially children. If something looks “cool,” they will want it.
Yes, that even applies to healthy foods. Remember the Dancing Raisins from the 1980s?
I sure do — it seemed every commercial break from Captain Planet had those raisins in it! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I have provided an image with this post.
The clay-animated spots clearly worked. The California Raisin Board credits that campaign for increasing raisin sales by ten percent.