There are thousands of products on the supermarket shelves competing for your attention. Their labels scream out all sorts of appealing messages, but what do they really mean?
I’ve worked in marketing for quite a while, and although I’m no Don Draper, I know that when used well product marketing and advertising can be powerful tools to help connect people with the products and services they need (or want). Fundamentally though, the goal is to sell. It’s to outshine the competition, to move units, to encourage consumption. To be a savvy consumer, we must educate ourselves on whether the messages we see are grounded in evidence, or if they’re advertising spin.
Natural / fresh / pure / superfood / wholesome – these terms are in essence marketing catchphrases and likely do not refer to any health- or nutrition-related quality we can measure.
Terms such as natural are more emotive than they are definitive, when it comes to food. What you, the consumer, define as natural could differ greatly to the food producer’s definition.
Often, product advertising uses these words to align themselves with current health trends. Superfood is a great example of this – they are simply foods in the spotlight, often seen as rare or exotic (think kale, goji berries, pomegranate) yet they aren’t necessarily superior when it comes to nutrition.
Fresh may infer that the product hasn’t been canned, frozen, or chemically treated, but you’d need to check for evidence on the label of whether that’s the case. By definition pure should mean 100% uncontaminated, not mixed with anything else, a singular product. However you may find it gets used in a more liberal way, especially with society’s ‘wellness’ obsession.
Traditional / original / authentic / real / genuine / artisanal – these words may be used to imply that the product is of higher quality than other similar products. Check for evidence – is any information provided that suggests the product uses particular cooking or processing practices? If not, these are just buzzwords.
Premium / finest / quality / best / gourmet – without evidence to demonstrate why the product is ‘top of the range’ as implied, these terms might only indicate a premium price, rather than superior quality.
Light or lite – this doesn’t necessarily mean the product is lower in fat or energy. It might refer to the colour of the product, the flavour, or the texture. The product should clarify what they mean – you’ll probably see this in a much smaller font size.
Colours and images that evoke healthful messages – a manufacturer can put lollies in a mason jar, tie it up with rustic hessian, and put a leafy green label on it, but this doesn’t make it a healthier product. It’s a costume. Advertisers know that all of these visual cues speak volumes – without inspecting the product more carefully, you could easily assume it’s a healthy type of lolly. Chances are, it’s just clever marketing – perhaps there’s some aspect of the product that’s marginally different from others in the product line, but the big difference is in how it’s sold to you.
Who sets the standards for food labelling?
Labels you can rely on
Don’t rely on the fancy labels on the front of the product for your nutrition information – turn it over and inspect the Nutrition Information Panel, the ingredients list, mandatory warnings (e.g. allergens) and fine print. That’s where you’ll weed out the facts from the advertising spin.
Nutrition content claims and health claims
Claims such as ‘Good source of calcium’ and ‘calcium for healthy bones and teeth’ must be supported by evidence. There is an extensive list of defined health claims backed by science – if a product makes one of these claims it must meet the strict criteria for their use. For example, if a product says it is a ‘good source of protein’, a serving of the food must contain at least 10g of protein. A business can make a health claim that isn’t on this list, but they must clearly demonstrate the evidence to support their statement.
If you think a product is using false or misleading labelling, you can contact ACCC.
Next time you hit the shops, explore the aisles with a your critical hat on. Check for evidence and you’ll build a truer sense of fact vs. advertising.
- ACCC – False or misleading claims
- ACCC – Organic claims
- CHOICE guide to food labelling
- Federal Register of Legislation – Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code
- FSANZ food labelling