Brain Food and Age Defiers: The Dubious World of Food Marketing
You can’t avoid the constant barrage of advertisements, but you can learn how to sift through the nonsense.
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In 2008, Kellogg's began airing a series of advertisements to promote its Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal. The TV spots claimed that the breakfast food “improves attentiveness and memory in children.” The claim was not really true, so the FTC ordered Kellogg's to stop airing the ads, and a class-action lawsuit was brought against the company for making false claims.
Kellogg's recently settled the suit to the tune of $4 million, and new claims about Mini-Wheats will have to be filled with dance-around language like, “Clinical studies have shown that kids who eat a filling breakfast like Frosted Mini-Wheats have 11 percent better attentiveness in school than kids who skip breakfast.” So basically, all they're claiming is that it's better to eat breakfast than it is to starve yourself.
So where did Kellogg's first come up with the notion that Mini-Wheats make kids smarter in the first place? Several years ago, the company sponsored a clinical study about how Frosted Mini-Wheats affects the cognitive abilities of children. In short, the study found, it doesn’t—but that didn’t stop Kellogg’s marketers from making grandiose claims about the link between school performance and wheat consumption.
This obviously isn't the first instance of the food industry using tricky marketing and semantics to boost sales. It's been happening for decades. But more and more often, companies are using these tactics to bolster their standing among an increasingly health-conscious populace.
Perhaps the most obvious examples can be found on energy drinks. These beverages must be labeled as either a conventional beverage (like soda) or as a dietary supplement (like vitamins).
Such branding has far-reaching implications; the way an energy drink labels itself determines a number of different regulations, such as disclosure of ingredient quantities, Good Manufacturing Practice, and whether makers are required to inform federal regulators about their products' possible links to injury or death.
Whether they label themselves beverages or dietary supplements, most brands of energy drinks make come creatively vague marketing claims. Red Bull claims that it "contributes to normal mental performance." Celsius says that it "raises metabolism." NOS makes the nebulous promise of “50 percent more focus.”
Even if those claims were true, it's hard to argue that these are healthy drinks. They typically contain about twice as much sugar as most sodas. Many contain ingredients that haven't been approved as food additives by the FDA, like taurine. They also contain considerably larger amounts of caffeine than is recommended by the FDA, which is 71 mg per 12 ounces. Monster’s Worx Energy shot, for example, contains 200 mg of caffeine in just 2 ounces. (To be fair, coffee also blows past those FDA regulations, with even more caffeine by volume than energy drinks—though that begs the question, why not just drink coffee instead?)
A recent federal investigation by Rep. Ed Markey and two US senators raised a number of concerns about the industry’s marketing practices, including some possible compliance dodges. The report has no direct affect on energy-drink regulations—it simply recommended that makers of energy drinks stop marketing to children and to be more forthright with ingredients and labeling—but it does signal that lawmakers are beginning to question the place of these products in the marketplace.
Reports like this seem to be affecting sales of energy drinks, which have slowed recently. Consumers might be realizing that these products anything but healthy, even if brands choose to label themselves as dietary supplements.
Taking Health to the Bank
Sometimes, marketing claims are so successful at tapping into the cultural zeitgeist that they become nearly impossible to reverse. Antioxidants, for example, have practically become synonymous with healthy dieting, thanks to the controversial Free-Radical Theory of Aging. This holds that oxidized “free radicals” contribute to cell damage over time, causing disease and hastening the aging process. Accordingly, it’s been theorized that antioxidant chemicals and other reducing agents, such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, help mitigate cell damage and, hence, stave off disease.
The problem is, none of this has been proven. In fact, lab tests on mice have all but debunked the theory. While there is a correlation between oxidative damage and aging, there is no evidence for a causal relationship—let alone the logical hurdle that antioxidants will prevent cancer and prolong your life.
Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and clinical associate professor at Boston University's Sargent College of Health, says that it's hard to prove whether antioxidants really work because studies focus on entire foods—not just their constituents.
"There’s nothing to say that when one antioxidant is removed it’s going to replicate the wonderful benefits that are in fruits and vegetables," she says. The fruits and vegetables likely work because of the synergy between their fiber content, vitamins, and other nutrients. And fruits and vegetables also contain a lot of water, which helps with weight management.
Salge Blake also suggests that you don't need to be getting vitamins or calories from drinks—they should come from food.
But that hasn’t stopped savvy beverage companies from pumping antioxidants into otherwise unhealthy, sugary drinks like Vitamin Water, and then using the presence of those antioxidants as a sales pitch. Antioxidant-heavy foods like blueberries and pomegranates are certainly good for you—for myriad reasons—but the antioxidant-extracts-as-life-preserver theory may be nothing more than hype.
Who Needs Truth?
So what exactly can marketers say? Some brands are getting away with dubious claims while others are punished. As mentioned, energy drinks get away with some pretty bold statements, some of which bear much greater risk than Frosted Mini-Wheats’ mostly innocuous “it improves your memory” pitch. Where is the line?
The truth is, it’s not really a line so much as a sphere of legal considerations, with a touch of good luck. A defense that is often used in cases of questionable marketing claims is “puffery,” which refers to promotional statements that are mostly subjective. A good example is the use of the phrase “the best prices” or “the best quality,” or the brand name “Seattle’s Best Coffee.” Advertisers enter murky water when they use objective, scientific data to mislead or confuse audiences.
Another important distinction in food marketing is the difference between research-backed health claims and what's known as structure/function labeling, the latter of which describes the role of a dietary ingredient meant to affect normal structure or health functions in humans, such as "calcium builds strong bones."
"There’s nothing wrong with a structure/function claim," Salge Blake explains, "but unfortunately it can be confusing to the consumer thinking that one product may not be as good as another because of that structure/function claim."
Take the example of Celsius energy drinks. It would be misleading if the brand claimed its beverages, on their own, can increase endurance, reduce fat, and burn calories. That wouldn't be puffery or a structure/function claim—it’d be false. Accordingly, Celsius must stress the fact that such benefits can only be had in the presence of healthy diet and exercise, and even then the jury is still out.
Celsius boasts on its website that “Clinical studies show that drinking a refreshing sugar-free Celsius before you exercise burns more calories, raises metabolism and provides lasting energy to power you through your routine and beyond.”
But in the footnotes, out come the qualifications: “Celsius alone does not produce weight loss in the absence of a healthy diet and moderate exercise... These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
That last point is important. While Celsius has sponsored a few clinical studies that purport to show the healthy benefits of the drink, it's probably just the stimulating nature of caffeine that helps burn extra calories. And the lack of FDA evaluation highlights the fact that the whole message is really just hot air, reduced to something like, “Diet and exercise are good for you. You should drink Celsius while you do it.”
Think Before You Eat
It’s important to realize that these bold and sometimes misleading claims by marketers are more common than it seems. It’s easy to take product messages at face value, especially when it comes to small item purchases like food. But because they’re directly related to your health and well-being, they deserve the highest possible scrutiny.
Take your food purchases seriously, and if you’re not sure about a specific product, go with your gut. A good rule of thumb is to simply withhold trust. Or, as Salge Blake suggests, "don’t pay too much attention to the front of the package; go to the side where the nutrition facts are. That’s where the consumer needs to be comparison shopping."
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