5 Food Marketing Gimmicks to Ignore

CC BY 2.0. Robert Couse-Baker

Food companies will say anything to sell their product. All it takes is some critical thinking to see the absurdity of most of their claims.

Navigating the aisles of a grocery store can be quite daunting. You are constantly bombarded with marketing claims, most of which are utterly absurd when you stop to think about it critically. It’s better to stick with buying food that doesn’t even have a package on which to print invented health claims; that way you’ll know you are actually getting the real thing.

These are some of the more annoying marketing gimmicks that I see on a regular basis. (Thanks to the Zero-Waste Chef’s blog post that really got me thinking about this.)

1. Family farm owned

This claim always strikes me as odd, since every farm owner is part of some family. Just because a farm is owned by a family doesn’t mean that it hasn’t become corporatized or industrialized. The statement is often used in conjunction with a date, i.e. since 1965, as if to suggest that the farm has continued to honor old production methods. Since that farm’s products are being sold in a large supermarket, chances are it is not growing food in the style of the small-scale farmers at your local market.

2. Vegetarian or free-range eggs

Chickens are supposed to eat insects! If you’ve ever seen truly free-range chickens at work, they spend most of their day on the lookout for juicy grubs. To ensure that a chicken’s eggs are fully vegetarian, one would have to go to extreme lengths to prevent that chicken from having access to the outdoors – primarily, by keeping it locked up in a barn, which is precisely the kind of inhumane and unnatural treatment we should avoid.

Yesterday I encountered a carton of so-called free-range eggs that were described as “giving the chickens space to roam in an open-concept barn.” While it’s good that the birds are cage-free, it’s not a whole lot better to keep chickens confined and likely crowded in a barn without access to the outdoors.

3. All-natural ingredients

Many terms are tossed around with far too much ease these days – natural, organic, gluten-free, made with real fruit, a good source of, etc. There are so few rules that actually regulate the use of these terms that most manufacturers can put whatever they think will sell a product, particularly in the natural and organic categories, which have become pretty much meaningless. Keep in mind that if a manufacturer has to tell you what benefits a food product has, most likely it doesn’t. The gluten-free label is often slapped onto foods that shouldn't even have gluten in the first place, such as the Rice Krispies in the header photo above.

4. Sugar is sugar

There are a lot of alternative sweeteners on the market attempting to make North Americans feel better about their sugar addiction. Whether it’s granulated, raw, turbinado, coarse, brown, coconut, or caster sugars, agave nectar, maple syrup, honey, beet syrup, blackstrap molasses, barley malt, or organic brown rice syrup, it’s all sugar in some form and best to be minimized in one’s diet. No earthy-looking label complete with pastoral imagery will make it better for your body.

Also, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients by group, only individual ones from most to least. However, there could be sugars and fats lurking in smaller quantities at the bottom of the list, i.e. corn syrup, cane sugar, fructose, in smaller quantities that, when added together, create a considerable amount of additional sugar.

5. Symbols

There are countless symbols and logos printed on packaging that supposedly make it easy to assess a product’s health value at a glance. USDA Organic, non-GMO project verified, kosher, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance-certified, and GF are a few examples. The problem is that these symbols say far less about a product than the list of ingredients on the back. Shoppers would do well to pay closer attention to what’s actually in the package than what the package claims to be.

The same logic applies to best-before dates; use your own judgment when it comes to a product’s freshness, rather than relying on a date selected by a manufacturer whose interests lie in selling as many products as possible.