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"The food industry is well aware that the fastest way to a consumer's heart is not through the stomach, it's through the eyes,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, clinical psychologist at Structure House, a scientifically-based residential weight loss facility with 40,000 people worldwide. “In the supermarket, the food industry lures us in with delectable images on packaging, health claims on labels and irresistible suggestions that make us believe we are getting a bargain.”
The result: We fall prey to impulse decisions to purchase items we never intended to buy. Watch for these tricky strategies and keep your eye on your healthy goals.
The food industry plays on the fact that most Americans do not know enough about nutrition to make informed decisions about what they are eating, says Molly Reynolds, senior marketing director of Lucid Public Relations in Los Angeles, Calif. “So they use buzzwords to highlight an aspect of the product that can be spun as ‘healthy,’ leaving out all of the non-healthy aspects about the product.” For example, “0 grams trans fat” may sound healthy, but the snack food is often high-calorie and loaded with sodium, guaranteed to add pounds to your midsection.
How long can you resist the smell of freshly baked bread or cinnamon rolls when you wheel your shopping cart past the bakery? “They do that on purpose,” says Reynolds. “Smelling the bread puts you in a better mood and makes you hungrier, which usually means that you will spend more.” A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine showed that hungry shoppers buy more calories, although not necessarily more food.
Although “Supersizing” is no longer a thing, “buy one get one free,” free fries,” and a host of other irresistible specials make that fast-food lunch too good to pass up. “Though we know fast food is bad for us, it is cheap,” says Reynolds. Coupons and promises of free food with your purchase make it even more enticing. Face it: No one needs two double cheeseburgers.
As the latest evil food ingredient, gluten-free may inspire you to buy it even if you’re not on a gluten-free diet. “In the gluten free sector you will find many companies putting those words on their products and now the public has associated gluten-free with being healthy and it is far from that,” says Audrey Darrow, president of Earth Source Organics. “Gluten-free only means it is made with white sugar, white rice, etc.” Often gluten-free products contain cornstarch, potato starch and other starches that raise blood sugar levels higher than wheat and are no healthier.
When you’re stuck in line at the checkout and have read every Kardashian story on the newsstand, what’s left? Only racks of gum, candy and chocolate bars lining the entire sides of the checkout area, vying for you to give up that last ounce of willpower. “It’s worse if it’s after work, you’re tired, hungry and bored,” says Reynolds. “But, oh look, there’s candy!” Keep eyes straight ahead to avoid impulse purchases.
The “halo effect”
Yogurt is healthy, but not when it’s spiked with chocolate chips and gummy bears. Ditto for foods labeled organic. Marketers count on you to use the halo effect of products with healthy labels in judging a product more favorably, even when it’s not, as a study from Cornell University showed. Cookies labeled “organic” were perceived as healthier than non-organic cookies, even though the two were identical. The halo effect applies to other healthy foods and drinks — including oatmeal and even water — that become junk food with additional ingredients.
Snack food labels divvy up the portions into smaller servings, which reduces the calories as well as fat, sodium and sugar. A half-cup of vanilla ice cream contains approximately 140 calories and seven grams of fat, for example. Drowning your sorrows in ice cream rarely stops at a half cup, and at 280 calories and 14 grams of fat for a cup, you’re in French fry nutritional territory.
Marketing experts are masters of psychology, and food marketers are no exception, says Reynolds. “They know what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it, which is why it is easy for them to trick us into eating junk.” Being aware of these tricks enables you to stay one step ahead.