Ever since we started paying closer attention to food labels, we consumers have found out just how rotten the food business is, and how much junk we’ve been putting into ourselves, unaware of the contents of the items in our shopping carts.
It’s getting worse by the day. There are seemingly innocent attempts at marketing – such is the case with a Massachusetts bakery famous for listing ‘love’ in the ingredient table on their granola (they were warned by the FDA that they can’t do that). But then you read the explanation and it becomes clear that such ‘innocent’ marketing tricks can play with the consumers judgement significantly.
The FDA thus concluded that the bakery was, in effect, distracting consumers from a product’s legitimate ingredient list. It might be obvious to some of us that love can’t be an actual ingredient, but some companies are using the same lingo gymnastics to convince us of other stuff.
The most famous examples are ‘100%’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘fresh’, etc. Most recently, certain brands are using the gluten scare to boost sales by describing their obviously gluten free products as ‘gluten free’. Non-GMO bottled water takes the cake, though.
In 2016, global sales of gluten-free food increased by 12.6% to $3.5bn, compared with overall packaged foods’ growth of just over 4% – suggesting companies are cheerfully cashing in on consumer ignorance of what gluten actually is.
The truth is that you’d be fooled if you thought food is great today, judging by the labels. You know exactly how much calories you take in, how much sugar there is, how much gluten, and if it contains GMO products. But sadly, most food produced today is at its worst since the advent of agriculture.
It’s cheap to produce, energy rich, and wholly useless in regards to nutritional value. Why, then, does it surprise us to read that cancer is going up instead of down, and the same goes for diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems etc. The same goes for allergies.
A recent study by the US nonprofit Fair Health found an almost 400% increase in life-threatening allergic reactions to food between 2007 and 2016, based on an analysis of private insurance claims. In the UK, hospital admissions for children with food allergies increased by 700% between 1990 and 2007.
Judging the accuracy and importance of some of the more scientific-sounding food labels today can be very difficult.
It has become impossible to stand in a supermarket aisle without facing a barrage of bombast and confusing claims of “natural”, “fresh”, “organic”, “super” this and “unprocessed” that. Not to mention the ever-expanding variety of “free-from” formulations. Indeed, last year Sainsbury’s almost doubled the number of products in its own Freefrom range and, according to Euromonitor, the global “free-from” category increased by 6.8% in 2016 to $32bn in retail value.
Now, the increase in “free-from” food labelling isn’t just marketing gone mad; it seems to reflect an increase in the prevalence of food allergies in western countries.
Further, food labels can affect the release of ghrelin in our bodies. Ghrelin is commonly known as the “hunger hormone”, and is responsible for telling your brain that you feel hungry. When ghrelin levels rise, your metabolism slows down, just in case you don’t find any food. A 2011 study, Mind Over Milkshakes, found that when people drank a milkshake they thought was highly calorific, their ghrelin levels dropped about three times more than when they thought they were drinking a shake advertised as being zero fat, zero added sugar and low calorie.
At this point, it’s possible you may be smugly thinking that you’re far too smart to be taken in by silly food labels. Sorry, but research implies otherwise. A study from the University of North Carolina and Duke University suggests that people with higher levels of education and income are more likely to be swayed by low-content food claims. And this has serious consequences: food labels exert considerable influence. To begin with, they can make us eat more of the wrong things. And when a food is perceived as healthy, people are more likely to eat more of it.
When did something as every-day natural as food get so complicated?