Food & Fitness

Misleading health claims

Nutrition labels and information on ingredients for food products is probably one of my most passionate interests within the field of nutrition. I even wrote a feature piece about the misleading claims on food products for a newspaper last year. So when Andrea from POM Wonderful contacted me about how Minute Maid has been misleading consumers with their pomegranate blueberry juice, I was eager to learn more.

Promoting a product as “healthy” when it contains less than 1% of the juice that it is labelled as – in this case, Minute Maid’s pomegranate blueberry juice – is a very big issue of misleading consumers. I read all of the ingredients on every food product that I buy, but I expect that I am in the minority: most people do not want to spend the time to analyze and compare different varieties of the same product in order to make the healthiest choice.

The problem that POM Wonderful has addressed is a classic example of how we cannot trust the manufacturers to be completely honest with us. And even the companies that do typically provide us with healthier options sometimes turn out a product which isn’t super healthy. That is why it is worth it to always read the ingredient lists, even for products that are from a reputable brand.

I am continually appalled at the marketing of countless products. There are so many consumers who don’t know what to look for, or who don’t realize the reality of what is in a product. I believe that there is a certain place for marketing strategies, certainly, or else the product would never be sold – and after all, I am a rhetorician so I understand the value of promotion – but I do think that the labels should be honest. The marketing strategies should reflect the product: rather than Minute Maid focusing on health, they could focus on something like taste, or that the container their product is in makes it easily portable, or similar.

Attn: Food manufacturers: please, figure out what the best thing about your product is, and sell it on the basis of that. If it is truly a healthy product, then by all means market it as a nutritious choice (I’m thinking whole grain rolled oats. Apples. Free-range eggs. Real food.) If your product is a chocolate bar, then market it on the basis that it is deliciously tasty. If it comes in small packages, then market it as a product that travels well. You can sell your product and be honest at the same time. And if you can’t, well, you have a serious problem with your product and/or marketing team.

Okay, readers, it’s your turn: how do you feel about current marketing strategies and labels on food products?

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13 Comments

  1. The Candid RD

    AMEN!!
    I could go on for days about my feelings for the marketing companies of the world. I get so angry sometimes at the health claims I read on labels, or even at signs in stores (such as the “Healthy” organic chocolate cake sign!!! The other day I saw a sign for a cancer foundation that was raising money via homemade lemonade, to fight cancer. The grocery store took the sign that said “Enjoy a tasty lemon treat to help prevent cancer” and put it next to lemon cookies and lemon meringue pie!!! While I know their intention wasn’t to say that these prevent cancer, the sign CLEARLY implied that, and I got so mad!!

  2. Sagan Morrow

    fd- It could definitely be stronger and better where I live, which is why my friend and I are hoping to have a march next summer in protest against current standards of food labelling. Something needs to be done about it!

    Gina- It’s so WRONG to do things like that. It’s incredibly deceptive and the unfortunate thing is that consumers really do fall for it.

  3. Emergefit

    Don’t eve get me started….

    …too late. I hate all food marketeers and executives– ALL OF THEM!!! I hate them with all the hate you can possibly hate someone with!!! Is it possible to hate with more hate than that? Then THAT’S how much I hate them!!!

    Wait, what was the querstion…?

  4. asithi

    I can see it now…all the apples will have labels on them claiming “real food.” :)

    Like I said in one of my blog posts, the healthiest food usually do not have a label on them because they are not packaged like produce and fruits. Eat plenty of those and you do not have to worry about food labeling.

    I read the ingredient list all the time when I am trying out a new product. At least they can’t lie on the ingredient list… yet.

  5. Cammy@TippyToeDiet

    It definitely gets under my skin, that’s for sure. At some point, though, personal responsibility enters the picture. I’m just not sure where. With so much information available, even in the mainstream media, people can make better choices *if they want to*. I think many folks just don’t want to take the time. And then there are the others, like my elderly friend, who believe every health claim on every product out there. (I’ve tried to tell him, but he’s 85 and there’s only so much changing he’s going for. *G*)

    There’s an old movie starring Dudley Moore–I think it was called “Crazy People”–as an ad man who has a nervous breakdown and is sent to a psychiatric hospital. I’ve forgotten the plot, but somehow he and his fellow patients develop some wildly popular ad campaigns based on total honesty. Even after all these years, I remember two of them: “Volvo, we’re boxy but we’re good”, and “Metamucil: It helps you go to the toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.” I may have to watch that again really soon. :)

  6. Sagan Morrow

    Emergefit- Wow, you certainly feel strongly about this one! I truly believe that PR and marketing are absolutely necessary for the industry and for the circulation of products, but I think that some companies are more honest than others. And while making money is a requirement for survival (after all, we need to be able to pay for a roof over our heads and for food to eat!), it would be great if more food manufacturers were concerned about the welfare of the consumers rather than being SO focused on only making money.

    Asithi- You know what, that would be awesome if people started labeling apples as “real food”! I love it when I see billboards proclaiming potatoes as a healthy food and that kind of thing. We have to promote whole foods, as silly as it may seem! The problem is when there are items like rolled oats or juice and such, which we buy “in a package”, because the weirdest ingredients can be put in them… they are still real foods, but food manufacturers can be sneaky! And the same goes for frozen vegetables: who would think that a company would add salt and other ingredients to the bag? But some of them do. So we need to check EVERYTHING for ingredient lists… we can never be too cautious when it comes to the food that we eat.

    Cammy- I agree that personal responsibility is major. But, like I said to Asithi, sometimes there’s salt added to frozen vegetables – should consumers HAVE to look for those kinds of things? Most people would automatically assume that the only thing in the bag is vegetables. And OH MY GOODNESS that film sounds awesome. I am going to look for it and watch it ASAP. Sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would adore.

  7. Mimi (Damn the Freshman 15)

    Oh, definitely agree. I get annoyed at organic companies that do this too with cookies and cereals. Stop labeling it as super-powered health food when it’s just a healthier alternative. 12 grams of sugar is 12 grams of sugar, be it “cane juice” or “sugar.”

    What makes me crack up now is the label on Goobers– “4 grams of protein per serving!”

    Honestly, I have to applaud Snickers. They list the calories and macros in big font and don’t in any way try to “pretty them up.” Thanks Snickers, for being honest and treating me like I have enough brains to know you’re a candy bar.

  8. Mary (A Merry Life)

    Part of the reason why I hate marketing and decided not to do it for a career is because of stuff like this. I absolutely HATE the health claims completely unhealthy foods make. It drives me crazy when I see candy bars promoting their 4 g of protein when they have double or triple that amount in sugar. So frustrating.

  9. Sagan Morrow

    Mimi- That’s awesome about Snickers. That’s the way it should be: people aren’t eating a Snickers bar for nutrients, they’re eating it because it tastes yummy. By stamping the calories across the front, they’re being totally honest about what they’re offering. And you’re right, added sugars are still added sugars. Glorified junk food likely has far more unhealthy ingredients than healthy ingredients.

    Mary- Very frustrating, but that’s part of the reason why I would LOVE to get into marketing: I would really like to be able to get into the industry and CHANGE the way it works by being honest about products and still be able to sell them. It doesn’t have to be a dishonest system… it’s just easier, for many companies, to be dishonest. They should be using their power for the good!

  10. clare

    This is super interesting. For quite I while, I’ve drank smartwater because it was always advertised as electrolyte water. So I’m thinking…good I drink it to replenish electrolytes because I sweat hard. Then I read the tiny print that the electrolytes are only added for flavor. Am I really getting replenishment I need? I emailed the company, asking for a comparison of smartwater to a sports drink so I could have a baseline. Their response was generic.

    “smartwater contains electrolytes in the form of calcium chloride, magnesium
    chloride and potassium bicarbonate. these electrolytes are added for taste.
    the quantitative content of each electrolyte is proprietary information.
    hydro = water. logic = smart. smartwater.”

    I emailed back asking what is so smart about it then…

    Now I have no idea what it really is or why I should drink it.

  11. Andrea (Off Her Cork)

    New marketing strategies are crazy! Both Manwich and Chef Boyardee are claiming a full serving of veggies in each portion of their produce. PLEASE. This is like when G. Bush Sr. claimed that ketchup counted as a veggie in school lunches. Something that isn’t healthy to begin with cannot just magically become healthy because you think that’s what people want to hear.

    I do wonder if people are buying into it though?

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