Food advertisers have one goal: to get you to buy their products.
We know, we’re not telling you anything that you don’t already know. However, manufacturers often base entire marketing campaigns on the things you actually don’t know. Consumers are impulsive, and we often make snap decisions based on product packaging. A cleverly placed “gluten-free” or “antioxidant-rich” label might influence your decision—even if you don’t really understand those terms.
We decided to look into a few common food labels to determine whether they actually had substance. Unfortunately, we found quite a bit of misleading marketing. For instance…
In recent years, the “gluten-free” market has become especially susceptible to deceptive marketers.
For people with celiac disease, accidental consumption of gluten—a set of proteins found in wheat, barley, and various other grains—can be disastrous. These people need to carefully choose gluten-free products, as exposure to even trace amounts of the proteins can bring on uncomfortable (and in some cases, life-threatening) symptoms.
However, as we’ve noted before on HealthyWay, if you’re not sensitive to gluten, “gluten-free” designations aren’t important. Most people don’t experience negative side effects after consuming gluten, and some researchers question whether non-celiac gluten sensitivity even exists.
“There’s nothing inherently healthier about gluten-free products,” registered dietitian Debra Malkoff-Cohen tells HealthyWay. “If you don’t have a sensitivity, there’s no reason to go on a gluten-free diet, and in certain circumstances, a gluten-free diet might be unhealthy.”
Still, many consumers assume that gluten-free products are somehow healthier, and food companies are more than happy to capitalize on the trend. Visit your local grocery store, and you’ll likely find items like gluten-free butter and gluten-free green peppers—never mind the fact that these products never contained gluten in the first place.
To be clear, however, some companies likely have their customers’ interests in mind. Products like beef jerky might seem safe for gluten-intolerant people, but that’s not always the case: “… there could be trace amounts of gluten present due to cross contamination not reported to us by the suppliers we get our spices from for specific products,” the company wrote. Some companies use gluten-free designations as a precautionary measure to make life easier for people with severe allergies.
With that said, some products clearly don’t need a gluten-free designation. The gluten-free label on a bottle of water, for example, means nothing—all water is free of gluten.
“You would think that most consumers would know that bottled water is gluten-free, but surprisingly, there are still customers that look for that label,” says Kevin Liebrock, a former category buyer for Whole Foods Market. “We are also seeing that move with the ‘non-GMO’ label and ‘sugar-free’ labelling. The product always had those traits, but manufacturers want to get onboard with the growth behind these label claims and feel obliged to add a seemingly meaningless differentiator stamp to their products.”
Speaking of water…
The “raw water” trend is an especially notable case of dubious marketing.
Live Spring Water offers “fresh and unprocessed” water, bottled in lead-free glass jugs and delivered to consumers for $16 per jug with a four-jug minimum (additional discounts are available for larger orders). The water reportedly comes from a spring deep within the Earth and isn’t filtered prior to delivery.
“Live Spring Water is fresh and unprocessed. All other commercially available filtered, and even bottled spring waters are sterilized with ozone gas and irradiated with UV light,” the company’s website claims. “Our water still has all the healthy minerals and probiotics fully unobstructed.”
Probiotics, by the way, refers to species of bacteria with positive health effects, but it’s not easy to determine whether a bacteria is good or bad; most fall somewhere in between.
“We still don’t know which probiotics are helpful and which are not,” the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) explains on its website. “We also don’t know how much of the probiotic people would have to take or who would most likely benefit from taking probiotics. Even for the conditions that have been studied the most, researchers are still working toward finding the answers to these questions.”
Food columnist Tamar Haspel researched the raw water trend for The Washington Post and found raw water claims to be accurate but misleading. For instance, Tourmaline Spring, another company that produces raw water, has 1.6 milligrams of magnesium per liter, so the company can accurately declare that the product contains healthy minerals. However, a single banana has about 32 milligrams of magnesium. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an average cup of tap water has about 2 milligrams of the same mineral, so raw water doesn’t seem like a significant improvement.
Raw water probably isn’t dangerous, as each brand undergoes regular testing to comply with FDA standards. Still, the purported health benefits are questionable at best—and for the price, consumers are better off sticking with tap water.
Before you start laughing at raw water buyers, ask yourself: Eat any multigrain bread lately?
As the label implies, multigrain products contain more than one grain. That doesn’t mean that they’re any healthier than single-grain products.
Food companies might be hoping that you’ll mistake “multigrain” for “whole grain.” Whole grain foods are, in fact, healthier for most people. Unlike refined grains, whole grains utilize the bran, germ, and endosperm of each grain, which means more fiber and more essential minerals. Many multigrain products simply use several different refined grains, which might change the flavor of the food, but doesn’t necessarily provide any additional health benefits.
Recently, many companies have gone in the other direction, dubiously labeling their products as “grain-free.” Of course, “grain-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthier.”
“We are seeing a massive surge in popularity with products labelled ‘paleo,’ but this labelling is somewhat restrictive and implies that it is only for consumers following a paleolithic diet,” Liebrock says. “As a result, brands that want to stay ahead of the curve are choosing to label these products ‘grain-free’ in order to capture a broader audience.”
In other cases, brands take credit for the regulations that they have to follow.
Meat packaging often bears phrase like “no hormones administered,” which might seem, on its surface, to be a positive thing. On beef, that’s certainly true: The USDA requires detailed documentation for beef products making that claim.
However, with pork and chicken products, “hormone free” is essentially meaningless. As it turns out, every pork and chicken product is free of hormones.
“Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry,” the Department of Agriculture notes on a page set up for consumers. “Therefore, the claim ‘no hormones added’ cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says ‘Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.'” Of course, that second message doesn’t need to be nearly as noticeable as the first—it’s often in very fine print.
While we’re discussing Department of Agriculture guidelines, “chemical-free” can’t appear on the label of a food product. Why? Well, everything is composed of chemicals; the term itself is complete nonsense. You might still see “chemical-free” descriptors on cosmetics and other products, but you’re better off ignoring the labels.
Companies make the “chemical-free” claim for a simple reason: Consumers will believe it, since they’re not really sure what “chemical” means. In a 1997 study, Gayle Nicoll of the Purdue University Department of Chemistry polled college students regarding the definition of “chemical-free” products. About 30 percent of respondents sided with the scientific definition of “chemical,” while another 30 percent sided with the popular definition; the remaining 40 percent believed both definitions.
“A correlation may exist between the amount of television students watched as they grew up and the type of views they hold about chemicals,” Nicoll wrote.
Many food companies also tout “antioxidant-rich” products. We’ve got some bad news…
Yep, you guessed it: Most foods contain some antioxidants.
In chemistry, antioxidants are substances that (wait for it) inhibit oxidation. As oxidation can damage some cells, researchers generally believe that antioxidants are a good thing.
With that said, antioxidant supplements probably aren’t helpful, according to the NCCIH, and you can easily enjoy the benefits of antioxidants by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
What you shouldn’t do is rely on antioxidant labels. Vitamins C and E, carotenoids, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and selenium are all common antioxidants, and those nutrients are found in thousands of foods. Here’s an extreme example, but a warning if there is any about blindly searching for antioxidants: If you dip your mozzarella sticks in marinara sauce, congratulations—you’ve just enjoyed a helping of antioxidants. That doesn’t mean you’ve eaten a healthy meal.
That’s essentially the problem with eye-catching labels: Consumers make decisions very quickly, and if they believe that they’re doing something healthy, they’ll be more inclined to make the purchase.
To make healthier choices, start reading the entire label. Ask yourself whether you really know what advertising terms mean. If you’re not sure, look it up on the FDA’s website or ask the manufacturer for more information.
Ultimately, the best way to fight the knowledge gap between consumers and advertisers is simple: Close it.