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10 Ways Food Advertising Tricks are Misleading You

vitamin water, trix, quacker oats, 7up, caprisunI am deeply disturbed by the state of our food industry. The countless advertising tricks that are used to persuade us to buy their products are out of control. Food manufacturers and marketers are pushing the limits of what is considered truth and what is considered a simple technicality. Take a look at these 10 products that I found shopping the grocery store. Understand how marketers use these tricks to persuade you.

Less Sugar – Reduced Sugar Heinz Ketchup

Heinz Ketchup Front

Heinz Ketchup Back
The first trick has to do with the common “reduced sugar”, or “less sugar” slogan. Reduced sugar Heinz ketchup only has 1 gram of sugar per serving. That’s 75% less sugar than their regular ketchup. Who wouldn’t want to pick this product over the regular one? After all, sugar is unhealthy, and if you have the choice of less sugar or more sugar, you’d probably choose the one with less.

Here’s the thing with these reduced sugar, or less sugar products – they replace the sugar with artificial sweeteners. Take a look at the back of the bottle at the ingredients. Sucralose, an artificial sweetener, is listed as one of the ingredients. Given the many negative health effects artificial sweeteners have on your body, I’d pass on this one. If I had the choice, I’d take the regular ketchup – even if it has more sugar.

Low Carb, 0 Trans Fat Flour Tortillas

Tortilla Front
Tortilla Back

Many low carb products hit the market back during the Atkins craze. This one is a low carb tortilla that has only 6 net grams of carbohydrates. The other 11 grams of carbohydrates are fiber. Sounds great! You can eat tortillas now on low carb diets.

What bothers me is the 0 grams of trans fat this product claims to have – and it does have 0 grams, but only on a technicality. Look at the back in the ingredients. It clearly shows that there is hydrogenated oil (it doesn’t say if it’s partially or fully hydrogenated, but it’s not a natural fat regardless). However, based on FDA regulations, if the product has less than .5 grams of any fat per serving, they are allowed to list it as 0 grams. If that sounds misleading – it is. Something should be done about that. Here’s the FDA rounding rules straight from the website. Take a look at it and be shocked at what’s allowed. This food advertising trick is common in more products than you might imagine.

Contains Antioxidants – Cherry 7up

7up Antioxidant
Really? We should drink cherry 7up for its antioxidant benefits? Maybe people think that if they’re going to buy soda, they might as well choose the one that has antioxidants. I’ve got news for you – any antioxidants that might be present as a result of the cherry flavoring is totally negated by the rest of the ingredients. What if I added a little cherry flavoring to some sugar? That’s called candy. I could use this good old advertising trick, and slap the antioxidant label on there and make it seem healthy. 7up never claims that its product is healthy, but it sure tries to use the power of suggestion.

Whole Grain Trix

Trix Front
Trix Back

General Mills seems to have started a new marketing campaign. On all of their boxes is the graphic “More Whole Grain than any other ingredient!” It’s whole grain, so it must be healthy…right? They even say it twice on the box to drive home the supposed health benefits. Claiming health benefits is one of the biggest food advertising tricks in the book. Now, take a look at the back. Sure enough, the first ingredient on the back of the box is whole grain corn. Ingredients are listed in order of weight from highest to lowest. Now, take a look at the second ingredient – sugar. The third? Corn meal. Forth? Corn Syrup. The list of chemical ingredients continues from there.

So what if whole grain is the #1 ingredient in the product by weight? If there were a gram of crack in there, would that make this product healthy? What if it were the last ingredient (least amount)? Would that make it healthy? The marketing department does its best to persuade you that Trix is healthy. I’m not going to say if it is or isn’t – I’ll let you be the judge.

Heart Healthy Quaker Weight Control

Quaker Oatmeal Front
Quaker Oatmeal Back

Quaker tries to promote its “Heart Healthy” instant oatmeal. It says “Weight Control” in big letters on the front and says it’s for your weight management plan. Who doesn’t want to lose weight? If the box says this oatmeal is for weight control, why wouldn’t you buy it? And hey, it’s heart healthy too. **Food Advertising Trick # 135 – claim that your product is good for the heart and will help you manage your weight.

Now, let’s take a look at the back of the box. In the ingredients you’ll see maltodextrin listed as the #3 ingredient by weight. Maltodextrin is basically glucose – one of the highest glycemic processed substances out there! What this means is that maltodextrin is easily digestible. So easy, that it is absorbed quickly by the blood stream – causing a surge of insulin. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. Tell me how that helps with weight control. You’ll also see acesulfame and sucralose – 2 artificial sweeteners. Is this product really supposed to be heart healthy?

Smart Baked – They Must Be Healthy

Streusel FrontStreusel Back

This is an easy one. I don’t think anyone thinks these snack cakes are healthy. However, let’s point out some of the food advertising tricks being used. First, they call them “Smart Bakes”. Marketers know that putting the word “smart” on a package makes it more likely you’ll purchase it. Using the power of persuasion, they make you think you’re making a good decision. Plus, it’s 100% whole grain and has 3 grams of fiber. Awesome!

On the back of the box you’ll see that they list trans fat as 0 grams. However, as I’ve circled in the ingredients, it has partially hydrogenated oil. It obviously has trans fat. And again, they are able to get away with this because it has less than .5 grams per serving, so they are allowed to express this number as zero.

Do we even need to look at the rest of the ingredients? They are trying to portray this product as healthy, yet the first 3 ingredients are sugar, flour, and cornstarch. Yum – that will do wonders for your midsection.

Water is Healthy – Right?

Roarin Waters Front
Roarin Waters Back

I like this one. They market it as water. There’s no artificial colors, so the product looks like water. Makes it seem healthier. And hey, there’s no artificial flavors either! On the food label, it says there’s 0% juice. I would love to know how they got this natural strawberry kiwi flavor without either strawberry or kiwi. Not to mention, the product contains an artificial sweetener (sucralose). I guess “no artificial colors or flavors” doesn’t include the artificial sweeteners that you can taste. The best part is that this product will help you earn green points. So, if you are a fan of the environment, you’ll be doing the earth a favor by buying this product.

Naturally Sweetened Vitamin Water

Vitamin water front
Vitamin Water Back

Next up on the list is Vitamin Water. They really know how to choose their wording. With words like vitamin, water, zero, and naturally sweetened, why wouldn’t you think this is good for you? Not only do you get all the benefits of water, but there are vitamins in there too!

Don’t get too excited. The label lists Stevia extract as an ingredient. Stevia is the hot new sweetener on the market. It’s being marketed as natural because it comes from the stevia leaf. I’ve got news for you – unless you’re eating the stevia leaf whole, there is nothing natural about this sweetener. Coca Cola lists out its 42 step process for deriving the Rebiana (Stevia extract) from the stevia leaf. The steps include the uses of methanol, ethanol, isopropanol, and many other chemicals. Not to mention, there are several heating and cooling steps involved. Take a look at Coca Cola’s patent right here. You tell me how natural that looks.

WhoNu Nutritious Cookies

WhoNu Front
WhoNu Back

Next up…nutrition rich cookies. Finally, you can have your cake and eat it too – or can you? Food advertising tricks are everywhere on this box. They say they are “nutrition rich”. They have “as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal”. They also have “as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries!” Not to mention, there’s no trans fat, no hydrogenated oils, and no high fructose corn syrup. With cookies this nutritious, why eat just one?

On the back of the box always lies the truth behind the tricky advertising tactics. First of all, all those vitamins and minerals are fortified. See that separate section labeled “vitamins and minerals”? It has its own section because it’s not naturally found in the product. You might as well eat some Oreos and take a vitamin pill – the effects would be the same. Now, let’s look at the ingredients. Let’s forget about the fact that nearly every ingredient is some kind of processed food. Take a look at the circled “corn syrup”. The front of the box says there’s no high fructose corn syrup. I suppose that’s true, but that doesn’t mean corn syrup is any better! Expect this to be broken down quickly, creating a quick rise in blood sugar, and a resulting release of fat storing insulin hormone. All these companies get away with these advertising tricks on technicalities.

100 Calorie Right Bites

Right Bites Front
Right Bites Back

Last on the list is 100 calorie right bites. Marketers make you think it’s not bad for you because they’re only 100 calories. What’s that going to do to your waistline after all? A calorie is not a calorie! They also call them “Right Bites”. Why? Because you are right to be making such a right decision. Right, smart, healthy – these are all keywords advertisers use to make you purchase the product. Last but not least, these cookies have 0 grams of trans fat.

And again, the truth lies on the back of the package. They claim zero grams of trans fat, yet in the ingredients, there lies partially hydrogenated oil (ie trans fat). If you haven’t figured it out by now, they get away with this because the FDA allows them to express any trans fat that is less than .5 grams per serving as zero. Since this package has 6 servings, and each serving could potentially have up to .5 grams of trans fat, this product could have up to 3 grams of trans fat – not exactly 0, huh?

Food Advertising Tricks

I had a lot of fun writing this article. It felt a little odd taking pictures of food in the grocery store while people strolled the aisles, but it was well worth it. Being that I usually ignore what’s in the aisles, and shop the perimeter of the grocery store, I hadn’t realized how out of control advertising had gotten. There were hundreds of products like this. The next time you’re in the store, look for yourself. Check both the front AND the back of the box.

So, what kind of tricks have you noticed?

This article is part of the 10 Ways to a Better Body blog series. Be sure to check out the rest of the series!

  • Sue Wetter

    Thank you thank you for this post! It’s important to read labels, but only if you know what you are reading! I love your stuff….you have helped me to get to my goal weight and eat so much healthier fueling my body for my intense workouts (fitness classes I teach and take)! You don’t know how much stronger I feel and how much better I perform….I attribute it to the education I have gotten from your website and FB posts!

  • Karen P.

    Ugh, I feel like I need to take a shower after reading this! I don’t even eat that gunk anymore, but it makes me sad that millions do.

    • Barb Schmitz

      Would love to share your info on labels. It is excellent and great education!! Barb Nutrition Educator with Juice Plus

  • jon

    Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it. It’s really enlightening to see what these companies can get away with on their packaging.

  • Donna B.

    I’m going to share this article with my bariatric nutritionist – I’m still stunned by how little people read or understand food labels, some of the people in the program had their WLS years ago! This is simple enough for even them to understand it :)

  • Gina

    Thanks for writing this article! I learned even more about reading labels from it. I wanted to also point out that The Capri Sun Roaring Waters has high fructose corn syrup in it too.

  • Lynda

    The information you’ve provided in this article is wonderful. I think consumers are, very slowly, learning how important it is to read labels, but food marketers know that most are still not aware of the tricks used. And even if we are reasonably aware, look at how busy most people are and how little time we have to stop and read labels. All you can do is keep on encouraging people to take the time to get back to the basics and learn, get enthusiastic again, about preparing/cooking meals using whole, natural, unprocessed foods.

  • Pingback: Exposed: Food Label Cons That Keep You Fat |

  • Christine

    What do you think of all the Kashi products?

    • Coach Calorie

      I can’t see what the ingredients in these products are, but the fact that they’re all in boxes doesn’t make me feel very confident.

  • Michael

    Thank you, what a great and informative article.

  • Tyler

    How do these people sleep at night? If you look at the patent for the coke’s extraction of the stevia extract it’s scary. More like a compound formula for making drugs or something. It’s ridiculous that people are doing this and more ridiculous that they’re getting away with it.

  • Jody – Fit at 54

    Got to read labels & educate ourselves! I am a MAJOR LABEL READER!!! Thx for a great post!

  • Miz

    for me it is ALL ABOUT KNOWING too.
    some days I may make a choice others wouldnt—but at least Im aware, label reading and CHOOSING.

  • Gail Owens

    My Personal trainer says if it comes pre-packed, pre-cooked or any box, it isn’t good for you; don’t eat it!

  • Ariel

    To be honest, I am surprised that this is such a surprise to someone. I truly believe in the concept of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware.” If the claim sounds too good to be true…it is. And, you should question why, and read the label. A food manufacturers’ goal is to sell you things that they think you would want to buy. If these things are objectionable to you then you are safer shopping the perimeter of the store and staying away from packaged goods altogether because while you have listed a few instances here there are many, many more out there that I could share.

  • Faith

    I agree that there are a lot of misleading labels, and as a rule I avoid pre-packaged foods.

    I do have to correct one thing, in the “Low Carb, 0 Trans Fat Flour Tortillas” section. Fully hydrogenated oils do not contain any trans-fats. I am very familiar with the rounding trick, and this often occurs. However, only partially hydrogenated oils contain trans-fats. Fully hydrogenated oils are simply saturated fats.

    Again, not that anyone should be eating packaged tortillas loaded with saturated fats, but it’s worth noting since there are differences in the health risks of trans-fats versus saturated fats.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hi Faith, that is true that fully hydrogenated oils are not considered trans-fats. However, the package on the tortilla just says “hydrogenated”, and that does not mean there is no trans-fats in there. In addition, even though fully hydrogenated oils are not trans-fats, they are still processed, and because of that, I’m not convinced they are healthy.

  • http://stumbleupon Maggie

    I love this article, especially because many times we don´t even know what those ingredients really mean.

    thanks a lot.

  • Craig

    Thank you for this very useful info! Some of those products are really tricky and fool lot of people!

    I also have a question: by looking more careful on my package of whole oats I’ve found out that it has 1,3 g of saturated fats per 100g. Is that ok? Do oats naturally have these fats? Or is it some kind of processed food even though it states to be just whole oats?

    • Coach Calorie

      Perfectly fine Craig. Saturated fat in and of itself isn’t bad for you. In excess it can be. And yes, it is naturally occurring in oats. In fact, saturated fat is in a majority of whole foods.

  • Sithina

    All American food products have long lists of ingredients, most of them highly processed. British food products on the other hand dont. Also British products have shorter shelf lives

  • Coach Calorie

    I’ve never seen British food labels, but that’s good they have fewer ingredients. However, processed is still processed, whether then have 20 ingredients or 10.

  • maiBrea

    theres loads of unhealthy food here in the UK too…i used to love Costco baked goods …yes i said it ..baked goods..then someone suggested that i look at the back the ingredients list and i was shocked i try and bake myself for the kids and im now a bit more informed and now purposefully look at ingredients when i shop ….

    • Coach Calorie

      Glad you started looking at the ingredients. That’s where it’s at!

  • Cindy B

    Love the info you provide. One of the best tips I ever heard about eating clean, meaning less or no processed foods or artificial ingredients, was from a TED TALK by chef Jamie Oliver. He said food shouldn’t have ingredients, it should be an ingredient. The other one that stuck with me was if it was made in a plant, don’t eat it. If it comes from a plant, eat it. The last good tip was that if your food can’t go bad (anything processed usually and comes in a box), it isn’t good for you, but if it can go bad (fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, meatss), it is good for you.

  • Paula F Ackley

    yeah, im pretty disturbed as well…

  • chimelle

    Do an article on “SPICES” in labels… they’re allowed to mask MSG and others under this guise. It’s a relatively new thing, and would love to see an article on that since it’s in nearly everything!

  • Coach Calorie

    Thanks Chimelle. I’ll look into it. Did you have any examples to share?

  • julie

    I’ve noticed this too. The ingredients will say.. garlic,oregano, basil, spices. What does that mean? Last I checked oregano and basil were spices. I just assumed it was a proprietary thing and they didn’t want us to know exactly what the combinations were, similar to KFC

  • Wowzers

    Annother annoying marketing gimmick:
    PERCEPTION: Net cards and fiber are mutually exclusive.
    REALITY: Net carbs INCLUDES fiber!

  • JjackJP

    WhoNu Nutritious Cookies. Contains palm oil and palm kernel oil. These are terrible for your arteries and are solid as a rock when at room temperature. One might as well just eat hydrogenated oils or lard…

    • Storm

      Nothing wrong with lard.