Food manufacturers spend lots of time deciding what to put on the front of food packaging. After all, it’s the first thing you see when you walk down the grocery store aisle and decide what to buy. If the photo and the colors don’t grab you and make your mouth water, they aren’t doing their job. You might think you’re not greatly influenced by food packaging and the photo but a new study suggests otherwise. Those pretty pictures of food, especially unhealthy options, may contribute to overeating.
Food Packaging Trickery
According to a new study carried out by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, packaging DOES play a role in how much we eat of a product. They found that when consumers see large, pretty photos of, in this study, frosted cake, they unconsciously size up the picture and assume the amount they see is how much they should be serving or eating.
Here’s the problem. The size of the product on the package is usually bigger than life and larger than a serving size. When you look at that photo, your brain tricks you into thinking that’s how much a single serving should be, despite the fact that it’s overinflated. In fact, the study showed photos from cake box mixes contained almost 135% more calories than what a serving should.
Food Packaging Colors Can Fool Us Too
What about color? The color of a food package influences us at an unconscious level. Suppose you have two candy bars. One is wrapped in a red wrapper with blue lettering while the other is covered in a green wrapper. A study showed consumers were more likely to call the candy bar wrapped in green healthy and feel virtuous about dropping it in their shopping cart. Why might this be? Our brains associate green with environmental friendliness and plant-based foods. Therefore, subconsciously we perceive a candy bar in green packaging to be healthier than its non-green counterpart.
Of course, you aren’t consciously aware of this. These judgments are taking place beneath your level of awareness, deep inside the gray matter in your brain.
Food Packaging Words Can Fool You Too
Another way food manufacturers lull us into a false sense of complacency is by describing food products as “natural” or “wholesome.” In reality, natural means very little. In fact, it isn’t a term regulated by the FDA. Many people equate natural with organic and the two are not the same. Organic items have a meaning that’s clearly defined and organic growers and food makers must meet certain standards while natural does not.
Despite the fact that consumers perceive organic to be healthier, it can be unhealthy too. Just because a product was grown or raised with pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics says nothing about the effect it will have on your blood sugar or whether it’s nutrient dense. Organic products may contain too much sugar or be high in calories, yet people sometimes overlook that because they think organic means better for you in every respect. Also, if you see a label that says “made with organic ingredients” it doesn’t mean the product is completely organic. It indicates that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. That means up to 30% of what’s in the package may not be.
Another trick manufacturers use is to use healthful buzzwords on the package that have no relevance to a particular product. For example, a container of fruit juice might proclaim it’s gluten-free on the packaging, despite the fact that fruit juice ALREADY contains no gluten. If you believe gluten-free foods are better for you, you might assume the juice is healthy even if it has 20 grams of added sugar. Certain buzzwords make us think “healthy.”
Then there’s the old trans-fat deception. Products that say they contain no trans-fat may STILL contain trans-fat. As the FDA defines it, a manufacturer can claim a product has no trans fat if it contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, not an insignificant amount if you eat several servings. The only way to know for sure if a food product is free of trans-fat is if it doesn’t list hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list. That’s why reading the ingredients is a must if you’re buying packaged foods.
The Same Applies When You Eat Out
It’s not just food packaging that deceives us, restaurant menus do too. For example, some restaurants now offer a lower calorie section of the menu. Low-calorie HAS to be healthier, right? Not necessarily. A low-calorie item may be cooked with an unhealthy oil or the smaller portion size may explain why it’s lower in calories. When you see the word salad on a menu, you’ve programmed your brain to think “healthy,” which simply isn’t so in many cases. In fact, some restaurant salads have upwards of 1,000 calories.
When McDonald’s introduced their new kale salad, you might assume it’s a better option than a burger. Yet, an article in Time magazine points out, the McDonald’s “healthy” kale salad has 730 calories while the Big Mac has only 540. See how easy it is to be tricked? Just because a product contains one healthy ingredient doesn’t mean it’s healthy overall.
What Does This Mean?
Reading the nutritional information and the ingredient list is the only way to get the full scoop on a product. Don’t be swayed by photos, buzzwords, colors, and other food manufacturer nonsense. Just as you don’t want to make important decisions based on emotion, don’t let your senses be your guide for what to buy at the grocery store either. Get the facts.
Even better, wean yourself away from packaged foods with the exception of minimally processed options like frozen vegetables and embrace foods that don’t need a label – those from a garden or farm and didn’t make a pit stop at a laboratory. Some research even suggests ingredients in processed foods like salt, sugar, and emulsifiers may play a role in autoimmune diseases. You don’t need all the “extras.” Whole foods prepared in a healthy manner can be even tastier.
Eurekalert.org. “Frosting on the Cake” March 30, 2016.
The Conversation. “Fat-free and 100% natural: seven food labeling tricks exposed”
Time Magazine. “McDonald’s New Kale Salad Has More Calories Than a Big Mac”
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