The food and beverage industry spends about $1.8 billion per year marketing to children and, not surprisingly, plenty of research shows it works. In the last five years, advocacy groups have aggressively campaigned against food marketing to children suggesting it is at the epicenter of our country's weight problem. Susan Linn of the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood has said, "Unless we regulate food marketing to children, we are never going to solve this obesity crisis."
Anyone who has ever seen a cereal commercial with an animated character or the consumer response to Flamin' Hot Cheetos can appreciate this perspective. However, with all the attention on junk food marketing to kids, another kind of marketing with potentially similarly insidious results hardly gets a second look: health food marketing to adults.
Junk food marketing to kids works because marketing, both honest and deceptive, is an effective tool to raise awareness and sales. Advocates would argue that adults, unlike kids, are capable of making independent choices and have the tools to discern messages intended to sell a product from product facts. But, does it matter that we cognitively know that organic animal crackers are still cookies if we are more likely to choose them because they are marketed as a "healthy snack?" Just like kids don't understand what is advertising versus programming, many adults don't understand that health labels are selling messages and not meaningful descriptions of a product's contents.
Regulation or not, as long as we're predictably irrational humans, we are going to find ways to influence ourselves with marketing, both positively and negatively and whether it's a junk food product or a healthy one. Marketing regulation may be one solution to our obesity epidemic -- certainly a multidimensional approach is necessary for an issue afflicting two thirds of our population. However, as we advocate to raise the standards on what food can be advertised to children, perhaps we need to also raise our adult standards on what food can be advertised to us as "healthy."
Almost 70 years ago, the World Health Organization famously defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." And yet today, too many companies are defining "healthy" by the absence of ingredients we all know are not good for us -- like artificial flavors and hydrogenated oils -- rather than by what they do offer -- whole, nutrient-dense ingredients.
Labeling a product as "healthy" or its cousin "natural" can serve as a useful mental shortcut; they are intended to make it easier for us to choose foods when most of us feel we don't have time to keep up with our ever-changing food landscape.
The challenge is that they more often make it easier for us to avoid thinking critically about what healthy means and select items like yogurt-covered pretzels in good conscience. Unfortunately, those "healthy" pretzels provide little more than calories with a sugar, oil and powder coating that resembles yogurt only in color. Shortcuts are only useful if they get us where we're going faster, not if they get us lost or to a place we weren't intending to go.
Some food companies are stepping up and standing for what they do offer rather than what they don't. For example, Tolerant is a line of pasta (or more appropriately "pasta-shaped") products that, while also gluten free and non-GMO, are high protein, high fiber and one ingredient. Similarly committed to offering a product that offers benefits beyond not harming you, ReViVer, a fast-casual restaurant in New York City, has raised the bar considerably higher for "healthy" with their comprehensive nutritional guidelines that include an impressively long list of things we need more of -- vegetables and fruit, protein and omega-3s to name a few.
As adults who know better, let's raise the bar for what we expect out of healthy food above what doesn't hurt us and support honest food marketing by purchasing foods that offer us more of what we need. Before picking up the "healthy" low-fat fruit yogurt or granola, let's ask what it's going to give us beyond a dose of sugar that rivals a can of soda. Instead of buying those "healthy" banana or veggie chips, recognize them for what they really are -- glorified potato chips depleted of almost any trace of nutrients during the vacuum frying -- and then pick up a banana or a vegetable. There's a place for these foods at the table. But let's choose them for what they are -- treats not staples of a healthy diet. As we expect more from "healthy," we'll start making better choices and perhaps model for our children a better relationship with food marketing.