Buyer Beware! 4 Food Marketing Tricks to Avoid

In the Lord of the Rings, the gangly, sneaking character Gollum is constantly calling the hobbits he travels with, “tricksy.” He’s suspicious of them trying to trick him into a trap or lead him away from his dear “precious” ring.

They didn’t have supermarkets and Amazon Fresh in Middle Earth, but if they did, Gollum may have called the food industries that supply our grocery stores “tricksy” just as he did Frodo and Sam.

There are a number of popular health myths, predominantly pushed forward by food industry marketing, that drive us towards making choices at the supermarket that may not be as healthy as we think. It can be difficult, however, to sift out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to healthy choices and food marketing. Today, we’ve highlighted some common food myths and marketing tactics used by food industries that may be stalling your health, and ways to avoid them!

1. “Antioxidant Rich” Dark Chocolate & Red Wine

Two indulgent favorites—dark chocolate and red wine—have been touted as having health benefits in recent years. They’re known for being rich in antioxidants; perhaps you’ve heard that a glass of red wine or dark chocolate each night is good for your heart health.

Both of these statements are rooted in research. Red wine has been seen to increase antioxidant status and reduce oxidative stress. Dark chocolate, similarly, is believed to have health benefits due to its antioxidant levels.

There is a catch, however. One you may have heard ad nauseam: moderation. Both red wine and dark chocolate can have high levels of sugar, which creates adverse health effects. Dark chocolate’s benefits in particular can be elusive due to the many ways dark chocolate is labeled. Some dark chocolate doesn’t list the percentage of cocoa actually in the candy.

Generally speaking, you want a dark chocolate bar with 70% or more cocoa in it. This should be explicitly labeled on the bar. These will be lower in sugar and higher in antioxidants. If dark chocolate is how you satiate your sweet tooth, aim to keep it at a small square, about an ounce and a half or so per day (not the whole bar!). Dark chocolate is also high in saturated fat, so it should not be eaten in high quantities.

Here is chocolate I love to indulge in.

Here is an extreme dark option.

Moreover, in red wine studies, participants generally are drinking 1-1.5 glasses of red wine per night. The research, however, is mixed. Generally speaking, alcohol intake isn’t good for your health, and consuming a glass of wine each night can disrupt sleep and increase your sugar intake. The beneficial effects of red wine are mixed, and become less beneficial as you age.

Limit yourself to a glass of red wine and a square of dark chocolate several times a week to extract the highest health benefits from these foods.  But if you’re like me and can’t stop until half a bottle of wine and the chocolate bar are gone, skip it!  The benefits are NOT an excuse for over-indulgence.

2. “Healthy,” “Real,” and “All Natural” Sugars

A great sugar war began a few years ago, with some types of sugar boasted as health alternatives, while others were demonized and determined to be the reason for poor health in the US. Though some forms of sugar require less processing and can be considered healthier by that metric, all sugars have the same effect on the body at the end of the day—increasing glucose levels in the blood.

You may see marketing on granola bars, gummies, and even cookie labels: “Made with Real Sugar!” That in itself isn’t the marketing trick. Instead, it’s the idea that some sugars are exceedingly more healthy than others. When it comes to sugar, it’s best to look at the quantity of sugar first, then the quality.

For example, let’s say one gummy option has 8 grams of sugar in a serving, and the source of that sugar is high fructose corn syrup. Another gummy option has 20 grams per serving, but that source is honey or white sugar. In this case, you’re better off with the first lower sugar option. To boost your health, it’s more important to decrease your sugar intake overall than opt for “real sugar.”

You can read more about genuinely healthier sweetener options—which have a decreased effect on your blood sugar levels—in a previous blog linked here.

3. Whole Grain vs. Whole Wheat vs. Multigrain—Who comes out on top?

The bread aisle can be a confusing place—options, colors, and shapes of bread abound. When you’re trying to eat healthily, you might head to the wheatier section. Once you’re there, you’re going to want to opt for foods labeled as whole grain.

Whole grain means what it says: all three parts of the grain are kept within the bread making process—the bran, germ, and endosperm. Consuming the entire grain in your bread and carb choices leads to the heart health, diabetes, and weight management benefits of whole grain.

Options listed as whole wheat and multigrain likely will not have the entire grain in the product. In this way, they benefit from looking and sounding like whole grain bread, but they do not provide the health benefits of a piece of whole grain toast or whole grain pasta! And many have a LOT of other ingredients like sugar, gluten and soybean oil.

An easy check to see if a bread or pasta is whole grain is the Whole Grain Council’s 100% stamp pictured below.

4. Labels that Say: Reduced Fat / Less Sodium

Our last hack is the marketing of less. Reduced fat! Low salt! These seem like healthier options—less fat and sodium is good, right?

Lower sodium and saturated fat is generally a good thing in our diet; however, the salad dressings, packaged meat, crackers, and other foods marketing themselves with less fat and sodium typically aren’t showing the whole picture.

We tend to love fat in foods because it gives it flavor. When fat is removed from a salad dressing, for instance, the manufacturers add sugar to the dressing to make sure it’s just as tasty as the full-fat option. You’ve avoided the high fat content, but now your blood sugar will rise—just from your salad dressing.

At the grocery store, you’ll also typically see two versions of the same can of soup: one without any labels about sodium, and one that says less sodium or low sodium. It’s important to compare the two. Sometimes, there’s only a marginal reduction in sodium—as little as 25%. When we’re looking at the extremely high levels of sodium in soups, a quarter reduction does make a difference, sure, but it’s a much less significant difference than you would have thought based on the marketing.

The takeaway here isn’t to completely cut out the low fat or less sodium options, but to equip you with the knowledge of these tricks so you can make empowered health choices. If you’re living with diabetes, it may be better to make your own salad dressing at home to avoid the saturated fats and increased sugar levels. If you are trying to avoid sodium, you’ll want to watch soups and deli meats like a hawk—especially the ones that say low fat or less sodium!

Do the sleuthing at the grocery store to find the hidden tricks. The more you know, the more you can make informed choices that are best for your unique health needs.

“Be Smart, Be Intelligent, and Be Informed”

Tony Alessandra

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