Sunday, 16 November 2014

5 Tricks food product marketers use to sell junk food

Michael Verhoef
A tasty can of chemicals...err, potato chips
Food label marketers are brilliant at what they do. Through the magic of wordplay and creative misdirection, they are often able to spur even the most health conscious individuals into buying a product that is far from healthy, or not as healthy as you are lead to believe. Here is a look at 5 of the neat little tricks they use to convince you to buy junk food.

Low fat labels

Claiming that a product is low in fat is one of the most common tricks employed by marketers, and it works too. Consumers will often purchase a product that they believe is healthier because it states that it contains less fat. What they don't often notice, however, is that there are methods the marketers use to make it seem like a product is low fat when it really isn't.

The most obvious of these methods is when the product is marketed as a 'low fat food', but there is that suspicious little asterix hanging there at the end of the word, trying to remain inconspicuous. This asterix, if investigated, is a note that there is fine print to be read. The fine print is found on the back or side of the product where it is more difficult to notice.

When you read the fine print, you will notice one very interesting caveat. The food product is low fat, but it is low fat compared to one of the manufacturer's other products, or a competitor's product. Just because a product contains lower fat than another related product, or to a competitor's product, does not mean it actually is low fat.

The same method is used when the label states that it is '40 percent less fat' or makes a similar claim. This just means that it is 40 percent less fat than the previous product or a competing product, but the product could still be high in fat itself. Approach all claims of low fat products with careful scrutiny and look at the actual amount of fat per 100 grams. This will help you avoid falling into a marketing trap.

Angel dusting

Angel dusting refers to the marketing technique of using a beneficial ingredient in a lower than required amount to create the perception that a product is good for you. Whilst a product may claim it contains a certain vitamin or mineral, the amounts of the ingredient are often actually negligible and won't benefit your health.

This type of deception is easy to see when you look at certain health drinks and supplements. Ovaltine Gold Crunch, for example, claims that it contains 10 vitamins and minerals. If you look at the actual concentration of these ingredients on the nutrient breakdown however, you notice that there is practically no benefit to be gained.

Vitamin B12 has a recommended daily intake of around 2 - 7 µg, and analysis of the product allows you to easily see that a recommended serving of the Ovaltine product contains a mere 0.02 µg of B12. This is one percent of the lower recommended intake. Calcium, which is present in the product at a level of 11 mg per serving, pales in comparison to the 1000 mg of calcium that is recommended on a daily basis for adults. This hardly lives up to their claim that the product is a 'good source of calcium'. If that is good, what is bad?

What's worse though, is that the product lists the amounts of these nutrients without telling you what percentage of your recommended intake is comprised. The percentages provided are the percentages of these nutrients when a regular serving is added to milk. By comparing the amount of vitamins and minerals in the Ovaltine, and then in the 'milk serving', you can see that the milk is what contributes the absolute bulk of these nutrients and what you're really looking at is the benefits of milk. Shady tactics indeed, but these same tactics are rampant in many other products.

Image: Yuankuei
McDonald's - The king of fast food marketing


Food marketers have a habit of taking the benefit of another product and trying to mislead you into believing that their product has the same benefit. In the case of Australian A2 Milk, which has been marketed in Australia and the UK for a while now, and is soon to be introduced to the US, their milk product is beneficial to those with digestive problems.

This company has a legitimate claim that their milk is better, because it is produced from cows that only produce the A2 milk protein. A1 milk protein has been implicated in digestive discomfort in people that experience problems when they consume milk. Because the A2 Milk doesn't contain any A1 protein, and only contains A2 protein, it is beneficial to those who have problems like this.

Dairy Farmers piggybacked on this with an attempt to make it seem like their milk is just as good for people with digestive complaints by stating in advertisements and on the label that their milk 'contains A2 protein'. They can make this claim because it's true, but what they don't tell is that just about all milk naturally contains both types of protein. The fact that the A1 protein is also present in their milk, means that it is not beneficial to digestive complaints. Only milk that contains the A2 protein alone will provide the benefits.

Dairy Farmers doesn't explicitly state that their milk is beneficial for anyone with digestive issues or allergies, but it does want you to draw that association yourself. They are hoping that by seeing A2 Milk advertisements and hearing about the benefits of that milk, that by claiming their milk 'contains A2 protein', they can fool you into thinking it is also beneficial in the same way. They piggyback on the advertising of another product, then use underhanded tactics to get you to draw the conclusions they want you to derive from their own advertising without saying it themselves.


Food marketers also like to use a form of misdirection, where they claim their product is free of something that is detrimental to health or simply undesirable in some form, but the product itself is naturally free of the ingredient anyway, so it's a moot point.

A big example of this is the marketing of marshmallows and other lollies. Manufacturers make the claim in big bold letters that their confectionery is 99 percent fat free, but this is the case for all products like this and isn't inherent to their own product or manufacturing technique.

Just because the product contains almost no fat, doesn't make it healthy either. Candy like this is mostly sugar, contains practically no vitamins and minerals, no fiber, and is worthless as a source of nutrition. The marketing attempts to have you perceive a benefit over a product like yogurt, which can contain fat. The difference is, the bag of lollies is a bag of sugar, water, and gelatin. The tub of yogurt contains a small amount of fat, but it also contains protein, calcium, low GI energy, other vitamins and minerals, and doesn't contain the bucket-load of sugar present in the latter.

A similar technique is used when marketers say a product has 'no added salt', or 'no added sugar'. The product could already be very high in those ingredients already, as is the case with fruit juices. Although a bottle of orange juice may state it contains no added sugar, it can still have the same, or close to the same, amount of sugar as any other orange juice.

Some product marketers even like to claim the product is MSG free in big bold font on the front of the product. This claim is formed around the idea that monosodium glutamate is harmful to health. Marketers use this belief to 'enhance' their product by stating that it is MSG free even though related products don't use it either.

This is a form of misdirection because they convince you that their product is healthy by claiming it is free of something that is considered to be 'unhealthy', rather than making any claim of benefits in their own product. Sure it could be free of monosodium glutamate, but is the product itself healthy or beneficial in any way?

Serving size shaping

It's no secret that certain foods are nutritionally dense. Chocolate, for example, contains over 2000 kilojoules (480 calories), per 100 grams. This is close to a quarter of the daily energy requirement of most adult people. Food product marketers attempt to get around this problem by shaping the recommended serving size to something ridiculously small.

Continuing to use chocolate as an example, it is common for the serving size to specify a certain amount of squares out of a block of chocolate. This might be three squares and equate to around 25 grams of chocolate.

On paper, this looks good to consumers because they see that the product contains 500 kj instead of a comparatively massive amount, but how many people really stop at three small squares of chocolate?

This kind of serving size shaping is used for most junk food products including lollies, ice cream, and party food. Nutritionally dense foods are made to seem much lighter than they really are by showing data to the consumer that is taken from a smaller serving than what they would really consume.

Ice cream often even uses a related technique where the serving size is measured by weight, but the amount of ice cream you eat is related to volume. The air whipped into the ice cream means that it is less dense and 100 grams of ice cream is often closer to 200 ml of ice cream in terms of volume. This makes it harder to measure out an actual serving or equate your serving with the nutrient breakdown on the label.

Sebastian Mary

Food product marketers will use any trick they can to convince you to buy their product over a competitor's product. That's not soon to change. What can change however, is the public's mindset. By taking a stand and carefully scrutinising the claims made by these marketers, you can choose better food options for yourself and send the message that their lies won't work anymore.

If they want to sell their product, they better make sure it's actually good instead of bashing the competition and manipulating words.

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