Eating right is hard enough as it is, and the misinformation put out by food companies and marketing campaigns only adds to the struggle. The food industry has undoubtedly contributed to consumer confusion by either marketing foods as healthier than they actually are, by funding studies that put a certain food in a favorable light or by outright engineering food to trick us into eating more of it.
The intent seems to vary from innocent to purposefully misleading. If you feel like you sometimes get mixed messages about food, you're not alone. Read on so you won't be duped again.
1. The Sugar Industry Made Fat Seem Like the Bad Guy
For many years, the dietary villain, especially as it related to heart disease, was fat. And it would appear that the sugar industry had something to do with that. A 2016 analysis of internal sugar industry documents brings to light research that the Sugar Research Foundation began funding in 1965, which resulted in a paper that "singled out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of CHD (coronary heart disease) and downplayed evidence that sucrose (sugar) consumption was also a risk factor."
The paper also states that the "early warning signals of coronary heart disease (CHD) risk of sugar (sucrose) emerged in the 1950s." Fast-forward to today: We know now that eating too much sugar increases the likelihood of dying from heart disease. Sadly, we could have known earlier.
2. Big Soda Gave Money to Public Health Groups
From 2011 to 2015, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored a total of 95 national health organizations, "including many medical and public health institutions whose specific missions include fighting the obesity epidemic," according to a 2017 Boston University study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
By accepting money from soda companies, those public health groups (including the American Diabetes Association) were indirectly contributing to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo's marketing strategies. And to add insult to injury, the paper notes that in the span of that handful of years "these two soda companies lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition." The one bill that both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo supported allowed companies to continue marketing diet soda in schools.
3. Bacon Was Declared a Carcinogen (Yet Bacon Sales Are Up)
Bacon and other processed meats were declared a carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015. However, products like "nitrate-free bacon" continue to be marketed as "natural" and a "good source of protein."
But Los Angeles-based dietitian Whitney English, RD, says, "There is no research to support that the alternative methods used to cure the meat make them any less harmful." He goes on to explain, "Still, companies mislead consumers by suggesting that certain ways of processing the meat makes it less carcinogenic."
And it seems to be working. Maybe it's the sales tactics, or maybe it's the rise of high-fat diets like keto and Paleo, but bacon sales are up. While the totality of your diet will always outweigh the impact of a single food (so if you love bacon, it's fine to enjoy on occasion), the evidence is on the side of reducing processed meat (in other words, you're better off skipping it).
4. Ocean Spray Wanted to Market Cranberry Juice as a UTI Treatment
The idea that cranberry juice could prevent or treat urinary tract infections (UTI) has been around for nearly 100 years, according to a 2016 editorial written in the Journal of American Medical Association. The paper explains that the initial idea was that cranberry juice could help treat UTIs by lowering the pH of urine, making it more acidic and therefore inhospitable to bacteria causing the infection. Later, research explored how phytonutrients called proanthocyanidins (a compound in cranberries and blueberries) could help prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract.
But despite all of the studies supported by Ocean Spray, results have been inconsistent or haven't yet been tested in human clinical trials. Furthermore, many studies use a pill form that can equate to nearly three servings of pure juice a day (20 ounces), which just isn't realistic. That doesn't mean you have to or even should give up cranberry cocktail if you enjoy it, just don't go guzzling a gallon of the stuff thinking it'll prevent or cure your UTI.
5. Doritos Are Engineered to Be Addictive
Americans love chips. And that's no accident. Reporting done by the New York Times revealed the concept of the "bliss point," developed by a mathematician to engineer processed snacks like Doritos and Cheetos, which "pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don't have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating." It was largely a combination of sugar, salt and fat that made their food so desirable.
But food that tastes good isn't the problem. The problem is that these addictive processed foods are available everywhere and are easy to overeat, yet provide poor nutritional value. If that's not infuriating enough, the leaders of many of America's largest food companies (e.g., Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft) came together in 1999 and chose to collectively ignore the role of their products in obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
6. Honey Is Often Mislabeled
Natural honey has some antioxidants and active phytonutrients, but darker varieties are more potent (and often much more expensive) than the average mass-produced honey. And 75 percent of the time, what's on the shelf may not even be accurately labeled, according to a study by Food Safety News. The report notes that some discrepancies are honest (beekeepers make their best guess as to which plants their bees go to when labeling their honey), but other times, honey could be adulterated with less expensive filler sugars (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup) and sometimes contain antibiotics or heavy metals.
Even if you're buying organic, you should still think of honey as an added sugar, not a health food. There's no significant difference in the way the body processes honey compared to table sugar. Women should aim for no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, while men should aim for no more than nine teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association.
7. Nutella Was Sued for Marketing Itself as a Health Food
The nutrition for a two-tablespoon serving of Nutella reads like a candy bar: 200 calories, 21 grams of added sugar (five teaspoons' worth) and 20 percent of the daily limit on saturated fat. Its main ingredient is sugar, and it's artificially flavored, so making a case for Nutella as a health food falls under the "too good to be true" category.
Yet that's exactly what Ferrero USA did via a television ad that shows Nutella as a solution for busy moms, claiming it's "made with simple, quality ingredients like hazelnuts, skim milk and a hint of cocoa." The ad doesn't mention the added sugar or palm oil. And while there's an on-screen note that there are "no artificial colors or preservatives," there's no mention of the artificial flavoring. The public felt so tricked by Nutella that they filed (and won) a class-action lawsuit for misleadingly suggesting Nutella was a healthy breakfast food.
"A comparable serving of natural peanut butter contains only one gram of naturally occurring sugar and seven grams of satisfying protein versus Nutella's two grams," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. "Since protein and fiber are the most important nutrients to consume in the morning to keep you full and balance blood sugar, save the Nutella for a special occasion."
8. Veggie Straws Are In No Way a Vegetable
Veggie straws are an airy, crunchy snack food marketed to consumers as a smart substitute for traditional chips. The company who makes the straws, Sensible Portions, wants the consumer to associate the product with vegetables. "But don't be fooled by the word 'veggie' in the name," says Jessica Penner, RD, at Smart Nutrition. "Veggie Straws are more closely related, nutrition wise, to chips than to fresh veggies."
For example, a half-cup of carrot sticks has 25 calories, and provides twice the daily recommended amount of vitamin A. In contrast, a one-ounce serving of veggie straws contains 130 calories and has zero vitamin A and no vitamin C or calcium, negligible amounts of iron and less than a gram of fiber. Your best bet is to think of veggie straws like you think of chips, not as a vegetable replacement.
9. Some Energy Bars Are Like Candy
Energy bars run the gamut from good for you to candy bars in disguise. If you're an athlete, on a long hike or just a busy person in need of an on-the-go meal replacement every so often, then eating an energy bar might make sense. However, when energy bars become just another snack food, it may be time to take a closer look at what's in your bar.
In the late 1980s, energy bars were reserved for elite athletes, but as competition in the bar space heated up, manufacturers looked to update their products to appeal to the office worker, too. This led to some of the issues we see today: Energy bars often have sugary coatings, little to no fiber and a lot of nutrients that are simply added after the fact rather than being inherent in the ingredients.
Most people are better off fueling with whole foods, but if you need an energy bar every once in awhile, look for a bar with fewer than 200 calories, at least three grams of fiber and five grams of protein and no more than 10 grams of sugar (it's even better if the ingredients don't list any added sugars).
10. “Gluten-Free” Doesn’t Mean “Healthy”
A small percent of the population needs to avoid gluten for medical reasons. But should the rest of us seek out processed foods marketed as "gluten-free" for general health? Short answer: Overly processed food isn't the healthiest choice, whether it contains gluten or not.
"Companies falsely lead consumers to believe that gluten-free products are healthy simply because they do not contain this wrongly targeted protein, when in reality, science does not support claims that gluten is harmful to the general public," English says.
Gluten is naturally found in wheat, barley and rye foods. When in whole grain form, these foods are linked to better cognitive function later in life. As English notes, "Many gluten-free products are made with things like rice flour or other starches that are low in fiber and they often include high amounts of saturated fat-containing foods to make up for lost moisture."
11. Nestle’s Marketing Claims Contributed to Infant Malnutrition
Over the years, Nestle has used ample misleading language when marketing baby formula, from "following the example of" human breast milk to having "an identical structure" to breast milk. And this has been going on for far too long. A 2012 publication in the Journal of Business Ethics describes the infant formula controversy of the 1970s, and how inappropriate marketing practices in third-world countries led to an international boycott.
More recently, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that offering new mothers commercial hospital discharge packs which contain free samples of infant formula or promotional material reduced the practice of exclusive breastfeeding. And in 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics lent their logo to formula given to new mothers. After the New York Times covered the story, the AAP severed ties.
While there are special cases when women should not breastfeed, experts agree that breastmilk is the uniquely optimal food for the first six months of life and with complementary foods for a year or more for ideal development and good health.