If you are interested in how food is marketed, head down to your local grocery store and walk down the cereal aisle. Between the hundreds of colorful boxes that contain flakes, grains, and other things that fill your belly in the morning, there are bold words vying for your attention. “All natural.” “Heart friendly.” “Naturally flavored.” Each phrase used on packaging is part of a tactic that has been, essentially, developed by a brand to get you to buy their product.
The food industry spends over $4 billion dollars each year to market products to consumers. This is a major concern in the United States, as the majority of these products are foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and/or sodium. Food marketing has been connected to unhealthy diets and obesity.
The term “superfood,” for example, has become a popular buzzword staple in the vocabulary of healthy foods. An often positive description for a food that has a high nutritional value, there is no technical definition for the word and no backing of scientific evidence on the health effects. In fact, the European Union has banned the use of “superfood” in product claims since 2007, while the US currently has no regulations.
The mere idea that we are discussing whether these claims are acceptable for the average consumer is still a positive one. We are certainly seeing a trend of health-food marketing and hopefully the US will catch on regulation-wise. As health communicators, we should work to distinguish the truth from the hype, looking carefully at the scientific evidence behind brand and media claims.
Take the word “natural.” I don’t always know myself what it means, but I do know that it is widely interpreted in different ways because it is overused on so many different products. How can they all fall under the same definition? Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is having a hard time with it, simply stating that:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
Mislabeling foods in the media may also give the impression that other foods in our diets are not as healthy when, in reality, these foods often provide nutrients just as valuable as those found in ones that advertised as healthy. Simple fruits and vegetables packed with vitamins and whole grains that are fiber rich are the most effective and often overlooked because there are no fancy adjectives out there to tout them. These foods often have the added benefit of being cheap and readily available.
We should work hard to create content that scientifically plausible and as free of jargon as possible. Do I think we should ban buzzwords from our vocabulary? Certainly not, business is still business. We just need to stop using terms because they sound great and actually describe them with integrity and cause.