Wander the aisles of any health-food store and you’ll be bombarded with all sorts of buzzwords emblazoned upon food and drink packaging. “Free from artificial colors,” “high in protein,” “naturally flavored”—you know, all the things we’ve come to associate with healthy eating. Of course, language like this is now commonplace, as mainstream brands rush to capitalize on consumer demand for packaged foods with wellness cred.
On one hand, all of these qualifiers can be helpful in providing a quick glimpse into a food’s nutritional info. But a growing number of products trumpeting their healthier attributes are still…not that good for you (or just misleading!), creating a more confusing environment for all of us.
This trend was driven home a few weeks ago when Bud Light aired a series of Super Bowl commercials celebrating the fact that, unlike Miller Lite and other light beer competitors, it doesn’t brew its beers with corn syrup. To be clear, we aren’t talking about high-fructose corn syrup here—the sweetener linked with type 2 diabetes and heart disease—but regular corn syrup, which beer makers often use to facilitate fermentation. (Sugar is necessary for fermentation to occur; Bud Light says it uses rice as its sugar source, rather than corn.)
Here’s what’s tricky about the non-corn syrup stance: There’s no corn syrup in finished beer. “It’s more of a processing aid and is 100 percent fermented out,” Kaylyn Kirkpatrick, a brewing extension associate at Cornell University, told TIME. (Basically, it’s used to make the beer, but it’s not hugely present in the final product—same with any other sugar used to help ferment the beer.) “We wanted to make sure people know what goes into Bud Light: barley, hops, water, rice,” says Andy Goeler, Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, of the ad campaign. But by focusing on corn syrup, critics say Bud Light essentially invoked our collective fear of high-fructose corn syrup, slyly positioning itself as a healthier choice.
The catch-22 of food labels
According to Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH—a senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and an adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health—this health- and ingredient-focused brand positioning is becoming more and more common as the wellness movement grows in America. “Processed food brands know that people are working towards better health and want to spend money on healthier foods that promote this better health,” she says.
As part of this, food and drink brands are latching on to any opportunity to align with wellness. “The corn syrup thing is part of the larger trend of clean-label food,” says Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at food and beverage consultancy CCD Helmsman . “As Big Food continues to clean up its labels, this is a very common [marketing strategy]: comparing yourself to your competitors by saying, Hey, look, we only have five ingredients, or We got rid of the trans fats and so we’re a better choice. It’s part of the whole mindset against big processed food and everything that’s wrapped up in that notion of cheap commodity ingredients that many consumers don’t want anymore. A lot of these claims are appealing to a new value set, especially among millennials who are looking for foods made in a different way—with more care, with transparency.”
“Unfortunately, many brands are promoting better health in their products, while often not actually making us healthier in any meaningful way.”—Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH
Transparency, not making health claims, is the name of the game for Bud Light, says Goeler. “Letting people know what products are in the beer is really the most critical thing. If you’re going to have a beer, you clearly know what you’re going to be consuming when you have a Bud Light,” Goeler says. He adds that it’s ultimately up to the consumer to decide how they feel about ingredients like corn syrup, preservatives, and artificial flavors—none of which, he says, are used in Bud Light.
Here’s the thing: In a lot of cases, the moves being made to “clean up” processed foods aren’t enough to tip the scales in a healthier direction. “Unfortunately, many brands are promoting better health in their products, while often not actually making us healthier in any meaningful way,” says Hunnes. She points out that it’s common for brands to proclaim that their products are made with “natural sweeteners” like cane sugar, rather than high-fructose corn syrup. But at the end of the day, both high-fructose corn syrup and sugar affect the body in pretty much the same way, and one is not inherently healthier than the other. “So, for the most part, it is marketing fluff,” she says.
Eating a not-so-healthy food with a single better-for-you nutrient isn’t going to significantly impact your overall health, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “Diets are complex. They include many different foods and vary from day to day and person to person,” says Nestle, author of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. “If you think about it, it’s unreasonable to think that one food or nutrient will make much difference to varied diets.” Hunnes agrees with this sentiment. “Focusing on one ‘healthy’ thing about a product while ignoring the rest of its lack of healthfulness confuses consumers and gives them the sense that they are doing a good thing for their body when, in fact, they may be doing more harm than good,” she says.
But there’s not really any way around this from the brand’s perspective, says Nielsen, as companies need to keep up with the competition in the health-claim stakes. Take the “made with whole grains” label, which is now on pretty much every cracker and cereal box in the typical grocery store. (Including the ones that are straight-up salt and sugar bombs.) “Consumers have been trained lately to start looking for these things,” she says. “If a company has good grains and they don’t put the stamp on it, will they get passed over? Brands have to say it so they can get credit for it and compete.”
How to sift through the marketing noise
To be fair, labeling a food with an on-trend wellness term can be super useful. In the case of something like the “gluten-free” label on a box of cereal—which some people may automatically associate with health benefits, even though many experts say gluten isn’t bad for most of us—it’s necessary for those who actually do have a condition like celiac disease that precludes them from eating gluten. “Consumers who have to go gluten-free are taught that there are all these things that contain hidden gluten,” Nielsen says. “So by saying, Hey, really, there’s no gluten, you are reaching out to that consumer who’s looking to make double sure.” Definitely helpful.
Plus, if you’re making the conscious decision to eat or drink something that’s not-so-nutritious—as I personally believe we all should every once in a while, FWIW—this kind of language can help guide you to a slightly healthier choice. “Somebody who loves potato chips and is going to eat them may be happy that [a brand] is made with coconut oil instead of hydrogenated soy oil,” says Nielsen. The same goes for booze, she says. “There’s a very nice market for craft and cleaner spirits. Just because it’s alcohol, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to have a clean label.”
If you’re looking to avoid being unwittingly duped into thinking a product’s healthy when it isn’t, experts have some advice. First, says Hunnes, you should pay particular attention to claims being made in the cereal and snack aisles, as these categories are particularly egregious offenders. “I have seen countless number of times on the front of a cereal box, ‘high in calcium, supports bone health.’ Yet, the cereal may have 12 grams of sugar per serving, or as much as any adult should have in a day, and we are serving this to our children,” she says. “Focusing on this reductive nutrition—one specific nutrient—gives the food product an aura of health, when in reality, it is a candied cereal made to look healthier.” This is why it’s important to actually look at and interpret the nutrition data on the back of the package, says Nestle, including added sugars, salt, colors, and flavors.
Hunnes’ and Nestle’s main tip for navigating the grocery store is simple: Eat mostly whole foods. When you do eat something processed, they add, it should be something with a short ingredient list—Nestle recommends five ingredients or less—made up of real foods as opposed to unpronounceable chemicals. “For example, pasta sauce should be some combination of oil, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, oregano, and basil—all items you would recognize if you were making your own sauce,” says Hunnes. “It may not have added vitamins and minerals, but that’s because it does not need to. It has a lot of nutrients already in-borne to the ingredients that are part of a healthy diet.”
Finally, be sure to use common sense and think critically about any health or nutrition claim that’s splashed across a package. As Nielsen points out, “all food wants you to buy it. We’re being marketed to all the time.”
Could the freezer section be—gasp!—the new healthiest part of the grocery store? No matter which aisle you’re shopping in, make sure you’re not making these common label-reading mistakes.
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