If you’re confused by food labels, you’re not alone. But don’t hold your breath for an at-a-glance food labelling system that tells you how much salt, fat and sugar each product contains. Australia’s proposed “health star rating” labelling scheme was put on hold in February, following pressure from the food industry. And it’s unclear whether the scheme will go ahead.
Commercial marketers use a variety of tricks to make foods seem healthier and more appealing than their competitors, particularly when it comes to products aimed at children. One of the most powerful advertising tools a food manufacturer has is the packaging, as it’s what we look at immediately before deciding which food to purchase.
Next time you’re shopping for food, look out for these seven common labelling tricks:
The colour of food packaging can influence our perceptions of how healthy a food is.
A recent study found consumers’ perceptions of two identical chocolate bars were influenced by the colour of the nutrition label; despite the identical calorie information, people perceived the one with the green label to be healthier.
2. Tricks and Seals
Another tool of savvy food marketers is the use of “ticks” and “seals” that we subconsciously process as indicating that the product has met some form of certification criteria.
A recent study found that nutrition seals on unhealthy food products increased perceptions of healthiness among restrained eaters. And a study with parents of toddlers found 20% of parents identified the presence of a quality seal as one of the reasons for their purchase of toddler formula rather than cow’s milk.
3. Weasel Words
Food packaging often contains words that imply the food contains certain ingredients, or has been prepared in a way, that makes it healthier (or at least better than similar foods).
But many of the words – such as “healthy” or “natural” – have no legal or formal meaning. While the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code regulates the use of specific health and nutrient content claims, it doesn’t regulate or define these loose terms.
“Weasel claims” describe modifiers that negate the claims that follow them. This allows manufacturers to avoid allegations of breaching advertising or labelling regulations, while being such a commonly used word that it is overlooked by the consumer.
For example, Activia “can” help to reduce digestive discomfort – but did you read the fine print? It “can” help if you eat it twice a day and “… as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle”.
Similarly, Berri Super Juice contains antioxidants which “help” fight free radicals (but so does whole fruit, which also contains more fibre).
4. Less bad stuff than . . .
Unfinished claims tell us the product is better than something – but not better than what. In food labelling, we really have to hunt for the “what”.
Fountain’s Smart Tomato Sauce still contains 114mg of salt per serving, while the brand’s regular tomato sauce contains 186mg (more than several other brands).
The Heart Foundation defines low-salt foods as those with less than 120mg per 100g; Fountain’s Smart tomato sauce has 410mg per 100ml. It does, however, have less sugar than many of its competitors.
So, if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake it may be a good choice, but if you are trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for one of the low-salt varieties and read the label very carefully (reduced is rarely synonymous with low).
It’s also worth taking a close look at the recommended serving size – in both cases the nutrition information is based on a 27g serving, but Smiths’ “single serve” pack is 45g (15.7g fat; one-fifth of an average adult’s recommended daily intake, or RDI).
5. Irrelevant claims
A common strategy is to list a claim that is, in itself, completely true – but to list it in a way that suggests that this product is unique or unusual (when in reality it is no different to most foods in that category).
“All natural” and “no artificial colours and flavours” are appealing features for parents looking for snacks for their children. But most standard cheeses (including many packaged products such as cheese slices) also contain no artificial colours of flavours.
This is not to suggest that Bega Stringers are a bad product or that you shouldn’t buy them – just that you may want to think about the cost per serve compared to other cheeses that are equally healthy.
Like most lolly snakes, Starburst snakes are “99% fat free”. The old adage of “salt-sugar-fat” holds here; products that are low (or absent) in one are typically very high in another. In the case of lollies, it’s sugar.
As with the potato chips above, serving size is important. Those of us who can’t resist more than one snake might be surprised to realise that if we ate half the bag, we would have consumed two-thirds of our daily sugar intake (although we can’t blame the pack labelling for that!).
Sun-Rice Naturally Low GI White Rice illustrates this use of technically correct claims. Let’s start with “cholesterol free” – this is totally true, but all rice is cholesterol free.
The pack also states in very large, bright blue letters that it is “Low GI”. In much smaller letters that almost disappear against the colour of the package is the word “naturally”. This use of different colours to attract, or not attract, attention is a common marketing technique.
The product is indeed low GI, at 54 it is just below the cut-off of less than 55. But the “naturally” refers to the fact that what makes it low GI is the use of basmati rice rather than another variety, and other brands’ basmati rice would have a similar GI.
6. No Added . . .
Berri Super Juice proudly, and truthfully, claims it “contains no added sugar”. You may conclude from this that the sugar content is low, but a closer look at the nutrition information label may surprise you – a 200ml serve of this super juice contains 25.8g of sugar (29% of your recommended daily allowance).
While contentious, some have even suggested that there is a link between fruit juice and both obesity and metabolic disease, particularly for children. A better (and cheaper) way of obtaining the fruit polyphenols is to eat fruit.
7. Healthy Brand Names
Healthy sounding words are not only used as “claims” but are often used as brand names. This first struck me when I was looking for a snack at my local gym and noticed the “Healthy Cookies” on display; they had more sugar, more fat and less fibre than all of the others on sale (Healthy Cookies was the brand name).
Brand names are often seen as a key descriptor of the nature of the product. Research has found that people rate food as healthy or unhealthy based on pre-existing perceptions of the healthiness of a product category or descriptor, particularly among those who are watching their diet, and may thus select the unhealthier option based on its name or product category.
If, for example, you’re watching your weight, you may be attracted to the Go Natural Gluten Free Fruit & Nut Delight bar, assuming that it will be a healthier choice than a candy bar. But you might be surprised to note that it contains 932 kJ (11.0% of your RDI) and a whopping 13.6g of fat (10% of your RDI).
A 53g Mars bar contains slightly more calories (1020kJ) but a lot less fat (9.1g), although the Go Natural bar could argue for “healthier” fat given the 40% nut content.
So, can we really distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods by looking at the wrappers?
The healthiest wrappers are made by nature, from the simple ones that can be eaten after washing (like apples and carrots) to those that need some disposal (like a banana or a fresh corn cob).
If you are buying your food wrapped in plastic or paper, it’s a little more complex. We need to see past the colours, pictures and cleverly-crafted claims and take a careful look at the ingredients and nutrition panel.
Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and receives funding from the Australian Research Council for her position and other research projects. She also receives funding from the Cancer Council Victoria, Cancer Institute NSW and FARE.
There’s no doubt that there’s been fervent interest in behavioural economics in the last couple of years among social marketing and policy practitioners. Both the UK and NSW Governments have developed insights teams dedicated to finding new ways to ‘nudge’ citizens to be healthier, greener and more civic-minded. So how can behavioural economics help with program design and campaign development?
Social marketing is about changing behaviour – behaviour that is driven by rational and irrational desires. The rational part of our decision-making process can be influenced by increasing knowledge (e.g. presenting the facts about skin cancer), increasing efficacy (e.g. healthy cooking classes or QUIT hotlines) and through legislation and subsidies (e.g. seat-belt laws, tobacco tax).
However, extensive academic research has found that people are often “predictably irrational”. When making decisions we take mental short cuts. We’re influenced by the desires and distractions of the moment. Knowing how people will behave irrationally can provide guidance on how interventions can be structured to influence healthy behaviours.
Below are three common decision errors, which have major implications for healthy behaviours:
Present bias is the tendency to focus on the immediate benefits or costs of a situation and undervalue future consequences. An example is postponing a session at the gym to watch TV; or undervaluing the long-term harms of tanning to look good now.
Researchers are now looking at a range of tools to help manage present bias. These include offering small incentives immediately after a ‘desirable’ behaviour has been done. One example is a pilot scheme in the UK where mothers from disadvantaged neighborhoods are given food vouchers worth around A$340 if they breastfeed for the first six weeks of their child’s life.
Because the use of incentives is very effective at motivating one-time behaviours (e.g. getting a vaccination or attending a screening), it is now being evaluated as an effective motivator for habit formation (e.g. exercising everyday).
The use of ‘contracts’ and commitment devices to pledge to a certain behaviour or goal are also very effective. These devices leverage the desire to be (or to appear) consistent with what we have committed to doing. Once we have made a choice (e.g. pledge to give up drinking for a month or to run a marathon), we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.
This is especially powerful when the pledge or commitment is made in public, such as social media, as people are pressured to be consistent with their earlier commitments.
Status quo bias
Status quo bias is the tendency to choose a ‘path of least resistance’ in our decision-making. An example of this is in western European countries that have an ‘opt in’ policy for organ donation, that is, the default is non-participation, donation rates tend to be close to just 10%. In contrast, in countries with an ‘opt out’ policy, in which citizens are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless they actively choose to opt out, organ donation rates are typically 98%–99%.
It’s important to consider the ways in which choices or options for programs are structured. The choices which social marketers want people to choose, whether it’s to recycle or take the right medication, needs to be the choice which requires the least amount of cognitive energy to choose.
Loss aversion is the tendency to put much greater weight on losses than gains. Studies have shown that a loss has roughly twice the disutility of an equivalent dollar gain. Knowing this decision bias can help frame messages and structure the way incentive programs work.
Be Mindful that . . .
While behavioural economics has the potential to make programs and policies more effective, as with any concept or intervention, there are limitations. The tools presented by behavioural economists are part of a possible solution, and should not substitute for public policies, infrastructural projects, or programs that increase knowledge and efficacy.
We also need to consider the social determinants which affect health and the decisions people make, while looking to policies that will deal with the underlying contributors to poor health, such as poverty, inequity and illiteracy.
As described by Loewenstein and Ubel, behavioural economics should “complement, not substitute for, more substantive economic interventions. If traditional economics suggests that we should have a larger price difference between sugar-free and sugared drinks, behavioural economics could suggest whether consumers would respond better to a subsidy on unsweetened drinks or a tax on sugary drinks.”
Disclaimer: Charissa has written this post as an independent contributor. This post reflects only Charissa’s views and not those of her employer or clients.
Interested in learning more? Dr Kevin Volpp, the Founding Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioural Economics at the University of Pennsylvania will be the keynote speaker at the Incentivising a Healthier Australia Forum in Sydney on Thursday 6 March 2014. Or, you could always Contact Us
Marketing is characterised by features such as a consumer orientation, segmentation and targeting, competitor analyses, extensive research with customers and potential customers to ensure that offerings are believable, relevant and motivating, and marketing plans for the ‘4Ps’ of the marketing mix: Product; Place (distribution); Promotion; and Price. Research and negotiations are also undertaken with intermediaries such as retailers, and with stakeholders such as unions and government, to ensure that making the product attractive, available and affordable will be facilitated by distributors and not hampered by structural and regulatory restrictions.
In all these areas, the notion of an exchange process between the ‘buyer’ (target) and the ‘seller’ (marketer) forms a platform of operation. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a successful exchange is that marketers offer people something they value in exchange for them purchasing, stocking or recommending the product or adopting the desired behaviour, whether they be end consumers, intermediaries or legislators. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a key driver in determining appropriate incentives for the various target groups in campaigns.
Social marketing is just one ‘branch’ of marketing, where the branches reflect the area of application, for example sports marketing, business to business or industrial marketing, not-for-profit marketing, religious marketing, political marketing, and so on. However, the key point of difference to all other branches of marketing, is that the social marketer’s goal relates to the wellbeing of the community, whereas for all others, the marketer’s goal relates to the wellbeing of the marketer (that is, sales and profits; members and donations; political representation; etcetera). If the wellbeing of the community is not the goal, then it isn’t social marketing.
Marketing draws on a number of disciplines for developing, planning and implementing marketing activities, but primarily psychology (for example, consumer decision making; attitudes, values); communication (especially for persuasion); economics (for example, utilities, price elasticity); and sociology (for example, behaviour of groups and organisations; diffusion).
Social marketing extends marketing’s borrowings from psychology (for example, mental health and happiness), sociology (for example, war and conflict, social movements) and economics (for example, globalisation effects), and further draws on disciplines and concepts that are related to community wellbeing, such as public health and health promotion, criminology, social policy and social welfare, and environmental sustainability.
However, regardless of these elaborations, and regardless of whether we are targeting individual consumers or those in power to make regulatory changes, the primary paradigm is that of marketing.
Just like any marketing campaign, a social marketing campaign works when it’s based on good research, good planning, relevant attitudinal and behavioural models of change, when all elements of the marketing mix are integrated, and when the sociocultural, legislative and structural environments facilitate (or at least don’t inhibit) target audience members from responding to the campaign. A well-planned social marketing campaign stimulates people’s motivations to respond, removes barriers to responding, provides them with the opportunity to respond, and, where relevant, the skills and means to respond.
Where social marketing campaigns have failed, it is not because the marketing paradigm has been inappropriate, but rather, the application has been inadequate or incomplete. Some critics of social marketing campaigns have claimed that marketing’s focus on the individual largely ignores the social, economic and environmental factors that influence individual health behaviours. While some social marketing campaigns deserve this criticism, this is not an inherent characteristic of marketing. One of the fundamental aspects of marketing—and hence social marketing—is an awareness of the total environment in which the organisation operates and how this environment influences or can itself be influenced to enhance the marketing activities of the company or health agency (Andreasen 2006; Buchanan, Reddy & Hossain 1994; Hastings & Haywood 1994).
Social marketing campaigns have been developed and implemented across a broad variety of areas, beginning largely in developing countries and dealing with issues such as rat control and other hygiene/sanitation areas, vaccination, family planning, agricultural methods and attitudes towards women (Manoff 1985). Applications in developed countries include a variety of areas although the majority and most visible have been and continue to be in lifestyle factors related to health and injury prevention (that is, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, nutrition and road safety), with lesser applications in other areas impacting on health and wellbeing such as ‘problem’ gambling, racism, child abuse and intimate partner violence, and growing interest in applications to energy conservation, recycling and climate control issues (Donovan & Henley 2010).
The paper then develops a social marketing framework based on the principles of marketing, the public health approach and the Ottawa Charter for health promotion.
- Andreasen, A.R. 2006, Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Sage, California.
Buchanan, D.R., Reddy, S. & Hossain, Z. 1994, ‘Social marketing: A critical appraisal’, Health Promotion International, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 49–57.
Donovan, R.J. & Henley, N. 2010, Social Marketing: An International Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Gordon, R., McDermott, L., Stead, M. & Angus, K. 2006, ‘The effectiveness of social marketing interventions for health improvement: What’s the evidence?’ Public Health, vol. 120, no. 12, pp. 1133–1139.
Hastings G. & Haywood, A. 1994, ‘Social marketing: A critical response’, Health Promotion International , vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 59–63.
- Manoff, R.K. 1985, Social Marketing, Praeger, New York.
Marketing for Change is now a member of the Australian Social Determinants of Health Alliance (SDOHA).
We will be represented by our Managing Director Luke van der Beeke, who from 2008 to 2011 was a member of the Europe-based International Collaboration on the Social Determinants of Health (ICSDH).
The ICSDH was established by the UK government shortly after the 2008 release of the WHO’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health final report – Closing the Gap in a Generation.
It’s terms of reference included lobbying the European Parliament to formally recognise SDoH and adopt a Health in All Policies approach, identifying and disseminating examples of best practice interventions, and supporting development of the Marmot Review of Health Inequalities in England post 2010 entitled: Fair Society Healthy Lives.”
The SDOHA was launched in February 2013 and is a collaboration of organisations that will work with government to help reduce health inequalities in Australia. The main goal of the SDOHA is to have the Federal, State and Territory governments of Australia commit to action and to implement the recommendations outlined in Closing the Gap in a Generation. These include:
- Improving daily living conditions
- Tackling the unequitable distribution of power, money and resources
- Measuring and understanding the problem and assessing the impact of action
“We’re a new social enterprise with limited resources but this is something we all feel very strongly about,” Luke said.
“We started Marketing for Change to improve lives and affect positive social change. Joining the Alliance is aligned with that objective.
“We’ll only play a very small role. But as a marketing and social change business I think we bring something different to the table.”
If you want to learn more about the social determinants of health check out the video below by Canada’s The Wellesley Institute. It’s one of the best introductory video’s we’ve seen.