Have you ever spotted a bag of crisps promoting 30% less fat, only to be faced with 30% fewer salty discs in the bag? Or seen a fizzy drink stating 36% less sugar when, in the small print, it reads “36% less sugar than granulated sugar” (a.k.a 100% sugar).
Ridiculous, isn’t it? The sad news is that is is everywhere. From hiding triangles of chocolate from new Toblerones to ‘Thins’ which have more total fat than the regular variety, it’s a minefield out there. To eat well today, you’ve got to know where the marketing traps lie.
Take a look at the most misleading food labels – and worst offending food brands – below.
1. Fake farms
As consumers become savvy about what good food looks like (cages are bad, open grasslands are good), manufacturers don’t simply start to produce better quality food. No way – that would be way too easy.
Instead, they try to tell you not to worry, everything you want in a product they can give to you. And as an extra act of good will, they won’t raise the cost, nor will they only sell it in speciality shops.
“You want fresh food from local farms?” they say. “We can do that for you. In fact, we already have numerous farms across the country supplying all your meat and dairy. No, really… just look at the packaging!”
So we do. We see “Willow Farm” on our Tesco beef mince, “Wood Farm” on our Aldi lamb chops and “Lochmuir” M&S Scottish smoked salmon and think we’ve done our part. The world is a better place as a result of our decisions.
However, there is one teeny-tiny downside: none of these farms exist. Lochmuir isn’t even a place in Scotland – it was chosen by a panel as the “most Scottish-sounding name”. These are foods which are produced in the same battery cages you’ve been actively trying to avoid.
The solution: Go to a local butcher if you want local meat. Yes, the extra expense will be there, but you can relax knowing you’ve got high quality, locally-produced food which doesn’t tell you porkies (no pun intended).
2. ‘Lighter’ lies
Ever since the 80s, fat has been vilified. The consensus – that eating fat will make you fat – is one which is upheld even to this day. In order to get away from the fear of fat, manufacturers have been stripping out this nutrient. Sounds ideal, right?
The reality, unfortunately, is less picturesque. You can’t strip out something as essential and flavourful as fat without ending up with an inadequate product. Take the fat away from fresh cakes, for instance, and you’re left with a hard and tasteless product. Long story short – manufacturers know that they need to replace fat, and they need it to be cheap.
The result is a chemical-laden product, pumped full of emulsifiers, sugars, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavouring and colours. The bonus, of course, is that they can say they have a ‘light’ (or ‘lite’) product – a term they know consumers simply gobble up.
Just look at McVitie’s Digestive Lights. The packet says it has “30% less fat” compared to original Digestives. However, they contain 4.5g more sugar than the regulars – and we all know how sugar increases weight gain, sometimes much more quickly than fat can.
The solution: Hunt for healthy sources of fats. Eggs, full-fat milk, real butter vs margarine, avocados, nut butters, nuts, olive oil, etc. are not just more wholesome that their ‘light’ counterparts, they’re also much more filling (ideal for those looking to lose cravings). Almonds and Pip & Nut Almond Butter in particular are great high protein snacks.
3. No added sugar (unless it’s a sweetener)
You’re not the only one to assume ‘no added sugar’ means ‘sugar-free’. Many consumers think this way – and marketers know they’re confusing, too.
If you’ve paid attention to the recent bad rep around sugar, then you will probably be looking for a reaffirming statement like this on every product you buy. Not just for your own food, but also for your loved ones, and children. ‘No added sugar’ means the manufacturer has made every effort to reduce the sugar in their products; they’re serving you a healthy product, what’s not to love?
Well, the love affair almost certainly stops by the time you flip the packaging over and take a look at the ingredients list. In fruit drinks, you’ll likely spot names of artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose and aspartame, to replace the sugar they think consumers need. Unfortunately, they raise insulin levels in the body just like table sugar does and, in fact, some are 650 times sweetener than regular sugar.
In other cases, where no artificial sweeteners are used, you’ll likely notice they contained enough natural sugar for it to taste good anyway, such as with apple juice. In these instances, the label means nothing – it’s purely dumbed-down marketing.
The solution: Ignore the front of the product and read the ingredients list for all the facts. Pretty colours, catchy slogans and the like are there to grab your attention; giving you a superior product is the last of marketers concerns. Cold pressed juices using 100% fruit and vegetables, for instance, are a healthier alternative to heavily processed fruit juice.
4. Proper protein is a wallflower
Which kind of products do you think are high in protein? No, they aren’t the ones with ‘HIGH PROTEIN’ plastered across their packaging. Wholefood, such as eggs, white meat, nuts, natural yogurt and legumes are fantastic sources of protein, but the supermarket aisles won’t tell you that.
No, they’ll persuade you to buy heavily marketed man-made products which are pumped full of sugar, chemicals, carbs – oh, and just the right amount of protein so that it meets the recommended measly 20% protein per product. In many cases, this means protein is added in at the last minute. Just check the ingredients list on that ‘high protein’ flapjack you love to have for elevenses; you’ll spot whey, soy and concentrated gluten at the end of the list, all of which come way after the oils, the syrups and the stabilisers. So, yeah, you may have consumed 20% protein, but you’ve also consumed an unhealthy amount of hydrogenated fats, sugar, carbs and chemicals at the same time.
The solution: If you’re concerned about getting enough protein, read up on natural protein sources before you head to the shops. Consider wholefoods which have a bounty of research behind them, before heeding to marketers last-ditch attempts at a winning ‘high protein’ by-line.