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Food advertising and marketing is an industry that is growing at a rapid rate. The goal of this industry is to make foods and drinks look cool, attractive, and tasty so that people will be interested in buying them. These companies will include certain terms or “buzzwords” to make their product sound like it’s healthy and will benefit you (Northup, 2014). Commercials for food and snack products can be seen in stores and also on the internet and especially on social media.
Have you ever watched a youtube video and gotten an ad before the video started? This is an example of food advertising and marketing taking place. In 2019, 42% of middle school students in Washington, D.C. “Played video or computer games or used a computer 3 or more hours per day” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). This means that these students regularly are seeing ads that are food related.
Imagine that you are starting to feel hungry. You know that you will eat a big meal in a handful of hours, but you need a snack to tide you over until the meal. You open the pantry or take your allowance and head to the corner store/grocery store near you with the intention of buying yourself a snack. However, since you started Snackwise programming you want to make sure that the snack you pick is healthy. You have your usual snack choices in mind, but you do not know how to figure out which one is the healthiest. You wonder to yourself “what do terms such as “all natural”, “low-fat”, “real sugar”, “high fructose corn syrup”, and “healthy” really mean?” Your tummy is rumbling, which is making it even harder to figure out which snack will be best for you and will keep you full for the longest time. What do you do?
Whatever you decide to do, do know that you are not alone in feeling confused and overwhelmed. However there are some easy things to keep in mind, so that the next time this situation comes up you will be better prepared.
Before we can answer what these terms mean, it is important to learn a bit about the people who are in charge of defining these terms. First, let’s focus on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is an agency (which is similar to an organization) that is in charge of many things such as approving new medicine and controlling the production of food. They are also in charge of defining and approving the use of health buzzwords on products. There are many-terms that they have strict rules for such as the term organic, but there are also terms that they have yet to define. This means that food companies may use terms in their advertising that may not be true in describing their product(s).
5 Common Health Advertising Buzzwords
Whole-grain: This term is used to describe the type of grain that has not had its outer layers removed. These outer-layers are rich in vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. If a product has the phrase “contains whole-grains” on it, it means that it is made up of some whole grains. This means that it could also have refined grains (grains that no longer have their outer layers), which do not have nearly as many vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. You want to make sure that you select snacks that say 100% whole-grain because these snacks are fully made up of whole grains and contain a lot of fiber. Fiber is important to keep in mind because it is a nutrient that when consumed makes you feel full.
Reduced-Fat: This term means that this snack has at least 25% less fat than the regular version of that snack. While fat is not automatically bad, since many snacks are known to be high in fat, reduced-fat snacks can be a way to eat a snack while keeping in mind that other foods that you eat throughout the day also include fats.
Natural or All-natural: This term has not been given an official definition by the FDA, however the general understanding is that a product with this buzzword on it only includes ingredients that you would expect to find in the product. For example, ingredients such as apples, sugar, and water being found in applesauce.
Natural or Real Fruit: This is another term that is confusing and that makes us believe that the product is healthy. This could be true in some cases, but in general this refers to concentrates which tend to be really high in sugar.
Zero Sugar or Sugar-free: This term means that the product does not have a type of sugar called refined cane sugar in it. This is misleading because the product could still have many other sweeteners in it. Check out this article to see what other terms that companies use in ingredient lists that still mean sugar.
Now, you might be wondering “Well what information do I need to be looking for when looking for a good snack?”. You are in luck because I have an easy acronym that will help you whenever you feel overwhelmed in the snack aisle. Looking at the front of the snack package can help you better understand the information on the back of the package. When looking at the back of the package, just use the acronym SIGN, which stands for:
Serving size: Select snacks that have a low number of serving sizes per box/bag. This will help you better understand exactly how much a recommended amount of that particular snack is.
Ingredients list: Make sure to pick snacks that have short ingredient lists with ingredients that you can pronounce.
Grain: Choose grains that are whole whenever possible for the additional health benefits. Remember that whole grains provide you with more fiber, which makes you feel full.
Nutrients: Look for snacks that have a lot of vitamins and nutrients listed in the nutrition label.
This short acronym can help you figure out what snack will be the best choice for you. While you may not always have healthy snack choices available, this little trick can help you when you are in a situation where there are some healthier options.
We have discussed 5 common buzzwords that are found on common snacks, but there are many more buzzwords that are used on foods and drinks that may make you think that a product is healthier than it actually is. If you are interested in learning more, you can go here to find some more common food advertising buzzwords.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Washington, D.C. 2019 Results
Chester, J., & Montgomery, K. (2008). Interactive food and beverage marketing: Targeting children and youth in the digital age (No. id: 1810).
Liao, L. L., Lai, I. J., Chang, L. C., & Lee, C. K. (2016). Effects of a food advertising literacy intervention on Taiwanese children’s food purchasing behaviors. Health education research, 31(4), 509-520.
Northup, T. (2014). Truth, lies, and packaging: how food marketing creates a false sense of health. Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 3(1), 9-18.
Talagala, A. (2016). Use of food labels by adolescents to make healthier choices on snacks: a cross-sectional study from Sri Lanka. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 739–739. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3422-1
Truman, E. (2019). Identifying food marketing to teenagers: a scoping review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16(1), 67–67. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0833-2