Sep
5

Food and the Power of Marketing

Jerre’s teenage grandchildren visited him this week. Last summer, Jerre’s grandson copy-edited our book Eat to Save Your Life with skill and efficiency. He and his sister know a great deal about nutrition, and even chided Grandpa last week for having a bag of potato chips in the cupboard. That errant bag of starch, salt, unhealthy fat, and (likely) nutrient-robbing olestra constituted a rare summer vacation indulgence, and they caught him.

So, imagine Jerre’s surprise when these savvy teenagers requested Nutella® breakfast spread because they were under the impression it is good for them.

“It has hazelnuts in it, Grandpa, and milk powder, and cocoa. Hazelnuts and milk are healthy,” they argued, “and pure cocoa contains more antioxidants than blueberries.”

Sounds pretty good, right? What had escaped them, though, is that the first item on the list of ingredients is sugar. Even more, a two tablespoon serving (the serving size recommended by the package), contains 21 grams of sugar. Twenty-one grams of sugar! That’s more than five teaspoons of pancreas-hammering, immune-suppressing sugar spread on a child’s toast at breakfast.

To make matters worse, it’s a product that’s marketed on television and online as a healthy breakfast choice—and it’s just one shining example among many of how media and marketing affect our food choices.

In fact, in our media-driven world, where television and print advertising have been joined by computers, cell phones, and other digital devices, fresh organically grown vegetables, steel-cut oats, stoneground whole grains, and healthy lean proteins are getting pushed off consumers’ plates around the world in favor of factory foods offering convenience and specious claims about nutritional benefits.

Manufacturers purchase heart healthy logos for their breakfast cereal packaging, yogurt makers promote miniscule amounts of probiotics in their products, and pasta makers tout the benefits of vegetables (processed to the end of their nutritional lives) incorporated into mixtures of white flour, salt, sodium phosphates, natural flavors (often, code for MSG), and colorant.

With just a few food conglomerates selling processed food into kitchens around the world, grocers are being told by these giants that they must make way on their shelves for more and more processed foods—even if that means fresh foods and certified organic items from smaller companies must be eliminated.

In addition, as we point out in our blog “What Size Smoothie Would Jesus Have Ordered?” serving sizes have become huge over the decades. In fact, serving sizes have quadrupled since 1950 all due to a marketing juggernaut aimed at supersizing portions and profits. Today, Canadians are consuming double the amount of salt they need and an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar per person per day.

Hmmmm, our serving sizes are four times bigger than necessary and loaded with sugar, no wonder obesity rates have risen to a whopping 40% and added billions of dollars in extra healthcare costs.

Consumers are awash in a sea of advertising claims designed to entice and confuse and, ultimately, generate profits at the cost of the health and well-being of millions of consumers who get much of their nutritional information from a few media sound bites.

It’s resulted in a worldwide epidemic of preventable illnesses. After all, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer are diseases of choice created by the decisions people make about the food they put in their mouths.

People wishing to improve their eating habits soon find that our society simply doesn’t support healthy choices. Those errant potato chips in Jerre’s cupboard were cheaper than a pound of fresh cherries or a few stalks of broccoli at the local farmer’s market—and those chips get a lot more media promotion than any farmer who grows fresh fruits and vegetables.

What can we do to improve this situation? Well, here are some simple things you can do:

1. Learn to read labels—and read them. If sugar, salt, and chemicals are among the first five ingredients,
leave the product on the shelf.

2. Avoid factory foods by preparing fresh, whole foods at home. Need some quick, healthy recipes? Send
us a note, and let us know.

3. Ask your local farmers and grocer to supply certified organic foods, and buy them.

4. Stop bringing home cases of soft drinks and fruit juices (especially those fruit juices containing no pulp).

5. Exercise vigilance when it comes to advertising, and complain—in writing—to the companies involved
and to regulating bodies when you encounter misleading advertising.

6. Teach your kids (and grandkids) about good nutrition. If you slip, they’ll remind you that there are better options.

Here’s to good (fresh, whole food) eating,

Jerre and Gloria

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