Marketing in some ways is applying the most appealing words to the truth, with an ultimate goal to sell, not to communicate the literal truth. Unfortunately, when it comes to food and exercise, it can mislead people into thinking they are making better choices than they really are. A recent article in The Washington Post describes how the language we use to talk about food can fool people into thinking that some types of food are universally good to eat, and others universally bad.
The point they make is this: We call kale healthy, and brownies unhealthy. But that’s not true. Either food can be part of a healthy diet, just as it could be part of an unhealthy one. And what do we even mean by “healthy” in the first place? Low-calorie enough to support weight loss and maintenance? High-calorie enough to sustain an active lifestyle and performance goals? A balance of vitamins and minerals? No one food can provide all this.
Intended or not, that’s essentially the message behind stunts like the one in Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (or the one leveraged to great effect by Subway when now-notorious spokesperson Jared Fogle lost weight eating their sandwiches). But the words we use can make it hard to remember this when making choices in the context of an overall diet. And marketers and manufacturers deliberately make it even harder by choosing words that divert attention toward positive characteristics and away from negative ones.
How many food packages trumpet that a product is “gluten-free”? I noticed my bags of microwave popcorn do. If I had celiac disease, this would definitely be good news for my health. However, since I don’t, that information about gluten is pretty neutral for me. Gluten-free has become a bit of a fad, with some people believing it’s de facto healthier, and others mistakenly believing they have a gluten allergy. A product’s freedom from gluten is really only nutritional news for a small percentage of the population, but the folks designing the packages know many consumers will misinterpret it as good news for everyone. Hence, the label.
Even the word “nutritious” is a bit of a misdirection. Kale is definitely nutritious. So is a brownie. Yes, carbs and fats are nutrients, and we need them in our diet to be healthy.
The power of suggestive words and phrases like “healthy,” “nutritious,” “gluten-free,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” and so forth make it important for us as consumers to understand how to read nutritious labels and make our own decisions about what to eat. It’s not a simple task; the FDA devotes quite a bit of explanation to reading labels without ever striking clarity, while the American Heart Association reduces the task to a handful of rules of thumb that won’t work for everyone. And that’s before we even begin to consider each person’s dietary goals: Weight loss, gain, or maintenance, some kind of physical performance, reducing blood pressure or increasing energy. We won’t even talk about research that shows how individual people’s bodies process nutrients differently, making labels at best an approximation anyway.
The next time you’re in a grocery store, pay attention to the words on the labels of the foods you usually buy. Look out for buzzwords that lead to a conclusion of goodness, and focus instead on the ingredient lists and labels. That’s the best data to decide what you want to put in your body, not the evocative terminology chosen by a marketer to adorn a package.