Gotcha! You’ve Been Manipulated by the Food Industry 


Written by Angela Silva

The food industry is a big business, and like any other industry, it operates to experience growth and please stockholders. But growth in the food industry translates to consumers spending more money, which means eating more food, in larger portions, more often. Here are some of the latest ways the food industry has been convincing us to buy more.

Feel-good messages

Think about the commercials you see for food products – they tell an emotional story of a hard-working man that inspires us, show a montage of a party where everyone is laughing and eating together, make us laugh at a witty interaction between a husband and wife, or have our favorite celebrities eat or drink their item. They evoke our emotions. And to their target market that has food in abundance and doesn’t have to consider eating for survival, they know that we eat with emotion. It’s not speculation – it’s been proven.  Large food companies have entire marketing budgets dedicated to studying what makes us grab for a particular food item, and they center their advertising on it. They know that when you’re shopping for a party and you recognize a scene from that commercial on the product, you’re more likely to reach for it.

Serving sizes

Grocery stores and restaurants have contrasting problems when it comes to serving sizes. 

Food sold in grocery stores have nutrition labels printed right on them, and manufacturers know that consumers aren’t likely to buy a food that says its serving size contains 800 calories. So what do they do? Manipulate the printed serving size to have safer-sounding numbers. A serving size with 200 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 20 carbs isn’t so bad, right? Until you realize that the product lists a serving size as 1 cookie, out of a package of 40 cookies.

The problem with restaurants is that we are trained to eat whatever portion is on a plate in front of us. So if you go to a restaurant for dinner, the menu lists individual entrees, assumed to be eaten by an individual patron. Perhaps you order a pasta dish, which comes with two side dishes and a drink. You aren’t informed of the calorie content for the serving you order but it’s generally assumed that it’s appropriate for an average individual. In reality, an entrée of pasta from a restaurant could easily be 1500 calories, not including your side dishes, which also probably have anywhere from roughly 300-700 calories each. Not to mention your drink, this would be close to 300 calories for a regular soda, based on the size of the glass. So for an average, healthy adult somewhere in the age of 25-40, that dinner alone likely exceeded the daily recommended amount of calories.

“Label-padding,” Label Misleading

Adding healthy-sounding herbs or berries at the end of the ingredients list is called “label padding,” and it is a marketing technique with the goal of convincing the consumer that they’re making a healthy choice. But remember that the ingredients list is in order of proportion of that ingredient in the product. In reality, that food product probably has a miniscule, meaningless amount of “spirulina” or whatever ingredient it is that they’ve listed, and it has no effect on your health.

Another manipulation of the nutrition label is in response to the discovery of the detrimental effects of trans-fat. Once the consumer became aware of its harm, food industries began boasting of their “trans-fat free” food items. However, the FDA created a rule that packaging could claim to have “Zero Trans Fat” if each serving size contained 0.5 grams of trans fat or less. But as we learned about serving size manipulation above, this could still be harmful to the consumer. For example, if each cookie has 0.5 grams of trans fat and the box has 36 cookies, that’s actually 18 grams of trans fat you’ve consumed in the time it took you to finish off the package. Not exactly trans-fat free after all.

So what’s the moral of the story here? Shop and eat smart. The food industry operates like any other industry, but if we know the basic, unchanging truths of nutrition, we can see past the propaganda and make healthy choices regardless of the messages we’re fed by advertising.

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