Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Misleading Marketing: Food Fraud at its best.

‘Healthy’ products filled to the brim with artificial sugars, ‘health’ claims that aren’t actually true, and ‘natural’ products that aren’t quite that natural to begin with… There certainly is no lack of unjust claims that are made marketing products, with the goal of making a profit. Not okay in retail express, but still used relentlessly for food marketing.
According to Foodwatch (a non-profit European organization that focuses on protecting consumer rights as they pertain to food quality), the food industry gets too much ‘wiggle room’ to use their misleading marketing. 

It has been argued on several occasions already that the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages (including those to children) plays a role in the rising prevalence of (childhood) obesity across the globe (McGinnis, Gootman & Kraak, 2006; WHO, 2010), and the fact that the marketing is misleading (and directed at children!) makes this even more deplorable. Children are a group of consumers that are especially vulnerable to temptation. Sweets, candies and sugar-sweetened cereals are a common part of children’s’ daily consumptions, and they don’t realise the consequences such sugar-filled diets may have, let alone understand how marketing is working against them. Take a boxof ‘frosties’ cereal bars for example.

Source: be803019f8b4c9fc653a62bf3f08339e.jpg

This product seems to be portraying ‘health’ at least to some extent: fresh grains on top, fresh milk on the bottom of the carton…  Yet it does not contain any grain, nor ‘fresh’ milk. It does contain cornflakes and a layer of ‘milk’ that contains condensed milk, sugar and a white colorant (E170). Speaking of sugar, a whopping third of the bars are sugar: not only is the milk layer sweetened, there are four different sugars (glucose, fructose, inverted sugar syrup as well as lactose) and two sweeteners too, just in case the sugars didn’t add enough sugary taste yet. (And must we mention that sugar may be addictive? (Bray, 2016)). 

And even though the package contains the mandatory labelling with regards to calories, sugar and fat content, the guidelines used for those are based on the consumption needs of adults, and not children. Even more so, if they would be using a colour scheme (like used in the UK; Food Standards Agency, 2007), the traffic light would show red (sugar) and orange (fat and salt) coloured parts of the label more than green. Not so healthy after all.

But maybe, most people realise that these kinds of sugary-muesli bars are not healthy, one could argue. Problem is that the misleading marketing does not end here. This is also the reason that Foodwatch organises a ‘contest’ each year, for the most misleading product.  The ‘prize’ is redeemed by the product whose packaging is the most misleading, they win the so-called, “Goldener Windbeutel(German)/Gouden windei (Dutch)”. The winner of the year 2014 was a product that again is marketed mostly towards children: capri-sun multivitamin drinks.

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Over 10.000 people considered this the most deceiving product, and voted for it. Not very surprising if you look a bit closer at the packaging. At first glance, I would assume this package to have fruit in it, and therefore contain loads of vitamins, or so does the package make me believe. However, one package contains about the same amount of sugar as a can of Coca-Cola, and is made with spring water and fruit juices only. Not quite as healthy as the first impression made me believe.
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Last year’s (2016) product that won the “gouden windei”was from the company named “healthy people” (marketing strategy much?). Their ‘blueberry and raspberry’ drink contains little blueberry (12%) and barely any raspberry (1%), and contains even more sugar than a can of Coca-Cola…. And even though law states that a juice must contain 100% juice, but what kind of juice is not important. Hence why this juice containing mostly apple juice (87%) can still lawfully call itself ‘blueberry raspberry’.

One last product profiting from this misleading marketing will hopefully motivate you to look closer to the nutrition information labelling in the future, especially if you are a parent: the so called ‘danonino’ yoghurts, marketed for children. This snack (or dessert) comes in five fruity flavours, yet when looking at the nutrition information, fruit is not on the list of nutrients. This seems to be misleading marketing, yet  Danone responded (as can be read here) that they believe their packaging is not misleading, and that it does not violate EU law: the pictures of the fruit represent the flavours that the yoghurts come in. Technically, Danone is correct and it is their right to market their product this way. However, to a (perhaps naïve) consumer, the idea of fruit in this yoghurt may be what conveys pushes them to choose this product. Yet without reading the small print of the packaging, where it is stated this is a chemical taste that is added and not actual fruit, such a consumer may be misled.

Source: foodwatch-tackles-misleading-Danonino-packaging_strict_xxl.jpg
 Perhaps the greatest problem in this all, is the size and wealth of the marketing and food industry, and their capacity to influence the political agenda, oftentimes preventing policy changes. For example: Coca-Cola spent more than $1.7 million in 2007 to lobby against marketing regulations, school nutrition legislation, and trade issues among other industry-related issues in the U.S. alone (Harris, Pomeranz, Lobstein & Brownell, 2009). Besides: the increasing obesity rates worldwide stand in contrast with the public health efforts that have focused on providing science-based nutrition information (Chandon & Wansink, 2012). This shows that these didactic ways for consumers to inform themselves are not the (sole) answer to the problem; as, clearly, food marketing continues to promote foods that have low nutritional value and influence diet-related health (Cairs, Angus, Hasgins & Caraher, 2013).

Nevertheless, policy about marketing is not likely to change very quickly (especially considering how much money is spent by companies to prevent this from happening), and in the meantime, we are all making food choices on a daily basis. So, for now, reading the nutrition information table, and clearly looking at all sides of the packaging (especially the messages in little print) can help making a more informed decision that hopefully isn’t a choice based on misleading marketing.


Maartje Mulders is a PhD Student at the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology at ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles)


Bray, G. A. (2016). Is Sugar Addictive?. Diabetes, 65(7), 1797-1799.
Cairns, G., Angus, K., Hastings, G., & Caraher, M. (2013). Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary. Appetite, 62, 209-215.
Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2012). Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutrition reviews, 70(10), 571-593.
Food Standards Agency. (2007). Using traffic lights to make healthier choices. Retrieved from
Harris, J. L., Pomeranz, J. L., Lobstein, T., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). A crisis in the marketplace: how food marketing contributes to childhood obesity and what can be done. Annual review of public health, 30, 211-225.
World Health Organisation. (2006). Marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Rep. WHO Forum Tech. Meet., 2–5 May, Oslo, Norway
World Health Organization. (2010). Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases: Implementation of the Global Strategy. Geneva: WHO.

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