FOCUS: Deceiving food packaging

Shoppers allured by health-conscious processed foods may not be buying what they expect. The misleading nature of numerous advertising campaigns and marketing ploys carried out by health brands have resulted in an uptick in lawsuits. Unlitigated marketing claims may not be officially disproved. However, SCHS physical education teacher Brittney Codera believes they should be scrutinized.
“False advertisement: it just gets people,” Codera said. “There are buzzwords around health and fitness. It (food labels) just depends on what the buzzword is. ‘Oh, keto.’ Okay, now everything is keto.”
Sargento Cheeses’ antibiotic-free campaign faced scrutiny in court. According to The New York Times’s health and science reporter, Andrew Jacobs, a lab test included in a lawsuit against Sargento Cheeses discovered a minute quantity of antibiotics. Similar labels indicating low cholesterol, low-fat, and non-GMO, can act to provide a false sense of health for buyers. Even claims accredited by nationally-recognized and reputable organizations can be false, pediatrician Nivedita Lakhera noted.
“They (brands) will write heart-healthy, but it’s the opposite. It’s not heart-healthy, but they put it in their marketing slogan that it is heart-healthy,” Lakhera said. “And how do they do it? They buy a gift, make a donation to the American cardiology Association, and then put a sticker on it.”
Similar to a label, a face can convince audiences to buy a product. Endorsements with popular athletes and celebrities have been used to bolster advertising campaigns. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, public figures can contribute to misleading advertising, which can mislead consumers and vulnerable audiences, chiefly children.
“Wheaties even has different athletes. ‘Oh, I want to be like that person,’ and then consumers assume that, ‘Oh, LeBron James is on a Wheaties box. He must eat these,’” Codera said. “I very highly doubt Lebron James is eating Wheaties. He’s got a chef, a personal chef. He’s not eating Wheaties.”
Health-focused advertising campaigns use popular diets to increase their reach. The keto diet promises that a restricted carb intake will result in weight loss through ketosis. Keto has reached high levels of popularity in recent years and has become a sensation in marketing. Dr. Jigyasa Tewari, a neurologist, believes that studies rooting keto in science have biases due to profit margins.
“Keto is one of those things, I believe, that the studies promoting or suggesting keto is a good diet are probably biased,” Tewari said. “It (keto) has been exploited in a lot of snacks and even keto coffee, so it is unfortunate.”
Package design and placement can play a decisive role in a buyer’s decision to purchase a product. Bright colors can entice buyers, drawing eyes to food packages. According to Codera, certain packaged foods are positioned at eye level.
“It (advertising tactics) even goes down to the science of where it (packaged food) is on the shelf, where it is in the grocery store, what aisle it is on, how many people are going to see it, the brighter colors,” Codera said. “I have a three-year-old, so putting Paw Patrol on everything works. He hates mac and cheese, but he wants the noodles because they are Paw Patrol. It is just finding things that will lure people in.”
While it is agreed upon that the misleading marketing of food products is a large-scale problem, some of the solutions can be just as problematic. According to the same NCBI study, advertising communication professionals did not find legislation to be a hindrance to their creative process. Despite this, 20 percent of those surveyed said misleading advertising still occurs frequently.
While morally gray, freshman Anjali Swamithan understands the motivations behind advertising campaigns and does not perceive them as illegal.
“I can see the thought process behind it. I mean morally, it is not very good, but at the same time, the company is getting their money,” Swaminathan said. “It does not matter how we get our money as long as we are getting it.”
Although it may be a brand’s job to advertise responsibly, consumers can protect themselves against pseudo claims by following certain guidelines. Lakhera believes a good rule of thumb is to avoid processed foods.
“What people need to know is anything that is canned should not be consumed because it has BPA. That is how their brain should function,” Lakhera said. “Anything that they cannot pronounce and that does not look like food, they should not consume it. Anything that has one ingredient is the best. Orange, one ingredient.”
Another standard of nutrition is to consider serving portions and the respective food groups present in a single meal. Tewari believes shoppers should shift their attention to the produce section in the grocery store.
“To me, it is so hard to imagine what I eat any day in the form of a pyramid. It is easy to picture our plates and what we eat throughout the day,” Tewari said. “Here is where at least half of your plate is all fresh greens and vegetables of different kinds. You could even pick better vegetables with different colors.”
According to Tewari, lifestyle and diet are directly related to diabetes and long-standing diabetes. While important for health, Tewari recognized that healthy eating is not particularly cheap. According to Havard’s School of Public Health, a healthy diet costs a dollar and fifty cents more a day than an unhealthy diet.
“It is really unfortunate how people who are struggling to make ends meet – they are having to work more than one job – are also more likely to be targeted by the fast-food industry,” Tewari said. “You find more fast food joints available in neighborhoods that are low-income and because it is fast food, they have drive-throughs where people, unfortunately, stop by on their way to work or between jobs.”
Some may not have access to healthy foods, and many do not have access to proper health education. Tewari believes widespread education is one of the first steps to combating a lack of health consciousness, ignorance toward health, and susceptibility to pseudo-claims.
“Educating people and schools are a great way to get started on this. There are a lot of efforts in community gardening, to talk to people and get people engaged in this,” Tewari said. “Whatever social organizations that are active in the community, whether it is a religious organization or a community center, they are all great resources for educating, informing people and playing a role in making the change happen.”