I chuckle to myself every time an advertisement for a pain relief pill claims “no medicine is stronger,” or something like that. Another brand boasts “nothing works faster.” It all sounds convincing, but if you stop to think about it, you realize those statements could mean that every other product is just as strong, or equally fast. Not quite as compelling, even if you say it in that booming announcer voice.
Food marketers do the same thing. They figure out what you want, what inspires you to plunk down your hard-earned money, and then they use phrases on their packaging and in advertisements to appeal to those desires. But just as with the pain reliever, sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper to make sure you’re really getting what you want.
An example that nags at me regularly is when a product boasts that it is “sugar-free” or has “no sugar added,” as many drinks, frozen desserts and breakfast cereals and bars do. My 12-year-old daughter proudly bought a bottle of flavored water with those words on it the other day, thinking she was getting something unsweetened with a hint of fruit essence. When we read the ingredient list together there were, as I had suspected, several sweeteners in it, including acesulfame-K, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding due to safety concerns, and erythritol, a sugar alcohol which, if eaten in excess, may cause nausea.
I was not concerned about the safety of her drinking such a small amount; what irked me was how the label had misled her. She saw the words “no sugar” and logically thought she was buying something that was not sweetened. Now she knows that that is not necessarily the case. A food that does not contain sugar per se may contain any number of low- and no-calorie sweeteners. Unless the product is specifically labeled “unsweetened,” the only way to know whether a product is sweetened, and with what, is to read the ingredient list.
Another term that misleads many is “whole grain,” which marketers can use loosely since the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates these things, doesn’t have an official standard of identity for it. You might buy some crackers, cereal or pasta that says “made with whole grain,” thinking you are doing yourself a favor health-wise, when in actuality that product may be primarily made with refined flour. Technically they’d only need to sprinkle in a little whole grain to boast that it contains the ingredient. To ensure a food has a substantial amount of whole grain, check the ingredient list to make sure whole-grain flour is the first ingredient, or look on the packaging for the “whole grain” stamp, which was developed by the nonprofit Whole Grains Council and will specify exactly how much is in the product.
The same idea applies to the words “contains fruit juice.” It’s probably not a news flash that candies made with “real fruit juice” don’t come close, nutritionally, to actual fruit. But those who buy them thinking they are making a significantly better choice might be surprised to discover that these products usually contain very little actual juice, in some cases less than a teaspoon per serving. Funny how fruit is so prominently displayed and celebrated on the package. Most of these “juicy” snacks contain sweeteners, and artificial food dyes and flavors, and are no better than any other candy.
You don’t need words at all to give people the impression that a product is wholesome and healthy: Images will do the trick, too. Think about the messages conveyed in the photos of berries and oranges on that bag of “fruity” gummy worms or on the boxes of cereals that are artificially fruit-flavored and contain no actual produce.
Then there are the drawings of bucolic fields on cartons of eggs and milk, when the animals that produce them may have never seen grass, and photos of frozen meals brimming with vegetables while there are just a few stray peas and carrot cubes in the actual dish. You might not think these images affect your buying decisions, but the power of suggestion can be strong and subliminal. As with any other claim, an awareness of its power to sway and reading between the lines as well as a careful perusal of the ingredient list are your best tools for choosing the products that are really right for you.
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author.