Sticking to a healthy diet isn’t easy. The gnawing food cravings (for sugar, for salt, for fat, for all three gloriously paired together) don’t help, nor do the mixed messages. As consumers, we’re inundated with labels, headlines, studies, and taglines that work to liberally redraw the line around what constitutes “healthy.”
As the FDA ploddingly works to determine an official set of criteria for the term, food and beverage brands are using a variety of marketing techniques to opportunistically position their products not just as “healthy” but, in some cases, the key to our national nutritional woes. Tactics range from emphasizing bogus details, such as candy packaging that proudly declare its contents are “fat free” (which, yes…because it’s all sugar), to more insidious media campaigns that position new food fads as a miracle cures.
There’s a solid financial reason for this of course. For the food and beverage industry, “very few things move the needle,” says Christopher Gardner, a nutrition professor at Stanford University. “People generally buy the same amount of milk, the same amount of bacon.” These companies are on constantly on the hunt for a product that can “triple in revenue,” hence the rotating door of new categories like coconut water, which has been marketed as a health drink that contains “as much potassium as a banana,” “naturally rich in minerals, vitamins and electrolytes,” and “low in calories.”
Peddling these claims works: Vita Coco, one of the industry’s biggest players, is reportedly on pace to generate $1 billion in sales this year alone.
As with coconut water, creating a “healthy halo” for a new product helps drive sales, says Sharon Akabas, an associate director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University. In many cases, however, the manufactured glow masks some not-so-great realities. “Any time we take food and put it into a bar, or a chip, or juice, we are often getting a junkified version of it,” she says.
Below are five food and beverage categories that are marketed as clean and nutritious, despite the fact they often contain high amounts of sugar, salt, and artificial ingredients.
“It’s hard to maintain a healthy diet. If you’ve ever wasted time and energy trying to decide what to eat for lunch, or have been too busy to eat a proper meal — Soylent is for you.” So goes the pitch from the San Francisco-based startup, which is working to “solve” the problem of eating food via drinks and powders that contain all the nutrients necessary to maintain a balanced diet.
Soylent is riding a wave of bad press at the moment (it had to recall its bars after people got sick from them), but it helped popularize the concept of isolating a nutrient in order to increase efficiency. It’s a line of thinking that extends to a host of other products, including protein-fortified yogurts or electrolyte-enhanced beverages.
While injecting useful nutrients into products sounds good in theory, the reality is more complicated, says Gardner. Take coffee, which studies have found has multiple health benefits. Identifying which components are responsible for said health benefits, however, isn’t easy. “There are thousands of chemicals in coffee,” Gardner says. If you isolate a nutrient and remove it from its food source, you could lose what made it beneficial in the first place.
Visit your local grocery or convenience store, and you’ll likely find a section dedicated to bars. Some are made from nuts, some from fig, others from a combination of fruit, chocolate, or protein gloop , but they have one thing in common: all compete for your attention by trumpeting their nutritious qualities. Clif Bars, a big player in the space, describes its bars as “a blend of protein, fat and fiber [that] slows the rate of digestion delivering sustained energy.”
Much of the category’s popularity ties back to “a craze about protein,” says Akabas. “People think there has to be protein in everything, and bars are feeding that frenzy.” A chocolate chip Clif bar, for example, has 10 grams of protein (around a fifth of the average person’s daily recommended value). But it also contains 21 grams of sugar (as a comparison, a Snickers bar has 30 grams of sugar).
“Any time you move away from whole foods towards processing, you tend to increase the concentration in simple sugars,” says Akabas. “It’s not going to kill you, but it’s certainly less desirable than eating the whole food.” She’s not dismissing bars completely—when consumed in place of an otherwise unhealthy meal, they can lead to—but in most cases, she finds, people eat them as a snack, without realizing how much sugar and calories they’re consuming.
In the last few years, the chip category has experienced a renaissance. Whereas once upon a time, chips were made from potatoes, today they’re made from kale, carrots, snap peas, beets, and a variety of other brightly colored vegetables.
Unfortunately, they’re still “just a vehicle for oil,” says Akabas. While often marginally healthier than traditional potato chips, most still contain ample amounts of salt and fat. With vegetable chips, you’re taking a healthy, nutritious food and “junkifying it,” she says.
As the health risks of sugar creep into the popular consciousness, the halos surrounding products such as cereal and granola are beginning to fade. In response, companies such as Kellogg’s and General Mills are modifying their recipes. Specifically, they’re trying to get the grams of sugar in a single serving into “the single digits,” says Akabas. Sugary brands that once had a whooping 12 grams are now reducing that number to nine. While an improvement, that’s still a lot of sugar, plus such a reduction typically means a product “has to be reformulated” so as not to change the volume.
Often, this translates into more salt. “Cheerios have as much salt as a serving of potato chips,” she says.
While juice cleanses popularity has faltered slightly, the trend is still routinely praised by celebrities and health bloggers as the key to nutritional bliss. (Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, apparently starts each day with a blend of kale, lemon, mint, ginger, apple and water.)
As with bars, Akabas isn’t issuing a blanket rejection on the category. Juices can be useful in moderation, when consumed as a meal replacement or a portion control device, she says. But as with bars, people often drink juices without realizing how much sugar they’re consuming. “We drink more liquid calories than we would eat if they were in solid form,” she says. You probably wouldn’t sit down and eat five oranges, but that’s easily the amount of calories (and sugar) found in a glass of orange juice. (An 8 oz glass of Tropicana, for example, includes 22 grams of sugar).
Most importantly, she wants to strip away juice’s health halo. “There is no evidence that juices will change your immune system,” she says. “There is nothing magical about the juice.” Yes, even the fancy, cold-pressed, Gwyneth Paltrow-endorsed ones.