by Kristen Smith, MS, RDN
Making healthy decisions in the grocery store has become more difficult than ever. As new products continue to hit the shelves, it has become increasingly challenging to navigate many of the health claims found on food packaging and within labels. Buzzwords on the outside of the packaging and vague descriptions can lead to significant confusion when making food choices.
Food companies often use health buzzwords, labels or claims to appeal to consumers’ health, lifestyle, ethical and environmental goals. It’s common to see lifestyle and health claims such as “gluten-free,” “vegan” or “no sugar.” These labels and claims can help a consumer spot what foods may fit into their lifestyle, but they don’t always tell the entire story.
For example, the packaging may say “high in fiber” but not mention the specific product is higher in sugar. Other health-related labels such as “gluten-free” can help support individuals with certain dietary restrictions due to medical conditions, but they may not necessarily benefit general consumers who aim for better nutrition.
Packaging color and design also play a role in consumer food choices. Some marketing experts believe the color of the packaging may be indicative of health factors. For example, many think a green package may signify that the product is organic or vegetarian, while blue represents “calm” and “fresh.” Food package design plays a huge role in food choices for both parents and children. Children are often influenced by cartoon characters or other flashy graphics. However, it’s common for products with attractive packaging to lack health benefits.
Food product and packaging claims can influence consumers’ purchasing decisions as well as portion sizes. It’s common for consumers to skip reading the food label and use the marketing claims on the front of the packaging as their decision-making guide. If a consumer is trying to lose weight but desires a cookie, they are more inclined to choose something labeled “high fiber” or “oatmeal” without realizing the product could still contain high amounts of sugar and trans fats. They are also more likely to eat larger portions because they believe they are making a healthier choice. Regardless of what is on the outside or front of a package, you should still look over the food label.
While it’s easy to quickly glance at food packaging to make informed choices, don’t forget the importance of reading food labels. Knowing what to specifically look for when reading food labels and ingredient lists can make grocery shopping a lot quicker and less burdensome. You can quickly look at the label to determine how much fat, sugar and carbohydrates are in the product.
For example, if you’re trying to eat more fiber and a food package claims it’s a high-fiber product, turn the package over and make sure the label indicates at least three to five grams of fiber per serving. It’s also important to scope out the ingredient list to better understand all the ingredients within the product. Specifically, check out the first three to five ingredients that are listed. Product ingredients are listed by quantity from the highest to the lowest amounts. This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of.
Once you are aware of misleading food marketing and how packaging can get your attention, you should find it easier to navigate the grocery store and make choices that are consistent with your health goals. It may also help you to follow these tips and tricks with your children to minimize filling your cart with food items that lack nutritional value.
Learn which food marketing phrases can help you stick to your health goals and which terms won’t be all that helpful.
Navigating the grocery store and maintaining your family’s health can be challenging with misleading and attractive food marketing. Here are some tips and tricks for managing a trip to the grocery store with your child.
With misleading marketing, attractive packaging and the use of popular phrases like “gluten-free,” it can be difficult to sift through false food claims. If you’re able to, spend a little more time reading the ingredients and the labels on food products before settling on a specific food or brand.
About the Author:
Kristen Smith, MS, RDN, is a bariatric surgery program coordinator in Atlanta. She has been a practicing registered dietitian for nearly two decades and is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Kristen’s nutrition expertise has been featured in interviews on Good Morning America, The New York Times, WebMD, US News and much more.
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