Nutrition and Marketing - Do you know the difference?

When it comes to food choices, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the choices that the media presents to us. Eat this...don’t eat it’s official!! You can eat this and lose weight...blah blah blah.  

My original occupation was in advertising, I studied it and lived and breathed it and then worked in it for 10 years as a copywriter. One of the best things about working in advertising is all the free stuff, usually food and beverages. There are 2 reasons why these days I wouldn’t advise taking nutrition advice from marketers; a) I know what most of them eat and drink themselves and b) it’s their JOB to make a product sound good. 

I vividly remember having to write an ad for a particular cereal brand. The brief was that this cereal was a healthy alternative and I was to make sure that this cereal was -understood in this way in the ad I did. After studying nutrition and a good 10 years after I wrote the ad I have discovered that this cereal is in fact 44% sugar! Sure it’s low in fat, but being low in fat and low in fibre and protein makes this cereal high GI and not very filling and satisfying and very inflammatory.  Inflammation = fat!

Copywriters are not nutrition experts, they are wordsmiths – and they do a very good job at presenting an argument for a product in a compelling and enticing way. Believe at your own risk the statements they make. I’m not saying that they’re misleading us, but they are able to put a glowing halo over a product that may not be any good for us at all.  

Many people comment to me that it costs so much to eat healthy. That is a very true statement ... if you follow the food recommendations set out by marketers. Pre-packaged meals with the word ‘Healthy’ in their name, pureed fruit squirty things, vitamin infused waters...etc are all very expensive versions of home cooked meals, fruit and water. But boy do those ads look enticing don’t they. There is no need to buy a fancy packaged ‘health food’ to be healthy.  

How do foods get the heart tick? Companies apply to the NZ Heart Foundation and actually pay for this qualification. There are a set of nutritional guidelines that products must meet in order to be approved for the use of the heart tick. These guidelines are based on the amounts of sodium, trans-fats, saturated fats and total kilojoules in a product and the amounts of good nutrients (like calcium and fibre) in products. There is nothing wrong with the heart tick program and I am in no way discounting its value in assisting New Zealanders reduce their fat and sodium intake. What I am saying here though is that it can also be a very powerful marketing tool which leads us astray if we take it at face value. Milo recently withdrew its tick status, whatever their true reasoning was, the fact remains that a serve of Milo powder is almost 50% sugar!  Sugar is inflammatory, and inflammation leads to health heart disease.  (Way to go heart tick)

Read your nutrition labels and ingredients list and make your own informed nutritional assessment – don’t just leave it to the marketing company to tell you what is good for’s your body.  Better still, buy foods that don't require labels, you know things from nature like fruit, vegetables, meat, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices...

The supplement and additive industries are very profitable – very low cost raw materials, supported by persuasive marketing messages and pretty packaging means that companies can charge phenomenal prices, which leaves us still believing that it costs more to be healthy. I’m not anti-supplements in any way, but I did have a lady try to sell me a powdered weight loss supplement and she could not tell me anything about it except that it ‘burns fat’. The ingredients list was ‘whey protein’, which I questioned her on and she could not tell me how it was different than the whey protein that I currently use.  Some people just shouldn't be handing out nutrition advice.

And don’t get me started on nutritionists who are paid to endorse products. One nutritionist is featured in advertorials explaining about the safety of aspartame and that as a nutritionist she should know because she understands to the bottom of the advertorial and you will see that it is sponsored by a very large beverage company. Again the marketing department and advertising agency were responsible for the strategy behind the campaign.  That nutritionist, more than likely did not write the ad copy, the copywriter and the brand strategists more than likely thought "Aha, if we TELL those suckers that she understands science then they will BELIEVE everything we tell them after that".  And yep, we got suckered...hard!

Advertorials are just ads that are made to look like editorials – they are bought and paid for just like an ad and created by a creative team.  

We need to be more savvy. We have takeaway companies upsizing our meals if we have a ‘mean hunger’... we’re letting these companies tell us how big our stomach’s are and what our nutritional needs are – Are you really going to let a fast food giant tell you how big your stomach is?

Marketers and copywriters are not nutritionists, and their own nutrition habits aren’t usually that glowing. By all means let them present their information to you – but once you’re in the supermarket, just have a look at the back of that pack, it tells you everything you need to know. There is certainly nothing wrong with the odd treat or trying a new product, I’m a total sucker for it, but if you are concerned about your health or if you have a medical condition that requires a reduction of absence of certain things and increases in others then you may want to re-assess the information that is presented to you.

Ex-copywriter turned Nutritionist Stacey Hancock spent 4 years studying advertising and 10 years working in advertising.