Food Fraud? | Marketing Health Claims

Looking to improve your health?

Aren’t we all! The abundance of health claims out there with products labelled “superfoods”, “functional” and “natural” can be overwhelming.

My research below is to help educate on whether we, as the consumer, should be spending the extra dollars on products claiming “superior nutrition”… Or are these claims merely a marketing technique used to push sales in a health conscious society.

Let’s start at the beginning…

What is Health?

Health is a word we hear thrown around constantly whether it be through medicine, social media or how we choose the foods we put into our bodies. Now especially with the current global situation we are told, even pressured, to strive for “health”constantly but what does the term actually mean?

As defined by the World Health Organisation, Health is “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”[1]

“Health” is also a highly subjective term with the intricacies of it’s meaning varying from person to person. This perhaps is what makes it such a marketable term. As it can be viewed so broadly amongst individuals it allows for vague and non discriminatory word associations, like the ones listed below, to be marketed across a broad spectrum of consumers [2].

Understanding Key Terms used in Marketing Health Products

Superfood, Natural, Organic, Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals are some terms we hear most associated with Health foods to establish the nutritional dominance over conventional selections. In the following section I aim to explore some of the background of these terms and whether they actually hold any scientific backing to their claims of superior health.

Natural and Unprocessed

Known as The Naturalistic Fallacy or the “appeal to nature fallacy” this idea claims because something is natural, it must be good. Within the context of diet if a product is altered by humans, or processed, then it is less healthy. However, how natural a food is does not dictate how good it is for you [3].

Protein powder is a good example of a processed food offering benefits over it’s natural alternatives in some health and fitness goals. Considered to be “very healthy” protein powder holds far less of a digestive burden, while maintaining amino acid integrity, than whole foods when consumed during or after exercise. As for vegan protein powders, the processing can make the protein better absorbed by the body. Also removing some natural factors such as phytoestrogens which can be over consumed in vegan diets leading to adverse effects [3].

Superfoods

The term coined by marketing companies in World War I to promote the importance of bananas in the diet is now in the 21st century one of the most commonly used words associated with marketing health [6]. The term claims that a particular food has superior nutrient density to others and that this food alone can drastically affect your health themselves [3].

Often the marketing fails to highlight that these may only be so beneficial in someone who is deficient in this particular nutrient. In the Western world it is unlikely for someone to be nutrient deficient even on the most poor of diets and that a variety of healthy foods will be sufficient in providing all nutrient needs [3]. This term may even cause people to focus too intently on one particular nutrient and too little on others.

Organic

A word originally associated with Chemistry meaning “carbon based” has recently found a new meaning in the food marketing industry. Organic, meaning something has a lack of pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics or hormones [3]. This is actually one of the health claims which has been studied rather indepthly, including research on long term health effects. The research has come back showing no long term health effects on whether a person eats more organic or conventionally.It suggests that there are no significant nutrient differences between the two when it comes to long term consumption [3].

“…there are no significant nutrient differences between the two when it comes to long term consumption.”

It is also noted that organic advocacy groups have a highly documented biasing pattern in their research. When third party research has conducted the same studies finding no difference in favourable nutrient status or even more favourable nutrient density in the non-organic choices [3].

Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods

Nutraceutical, also known as functional foods, was a work first used in 1989 by Scientist Stephen L. Defelice. Defeline defined the term nutraceutical as ‘a food or part of a food,

such as a dietary supplement, that has a medical or health benefit, including the prevention and treatment of disease’ [2]. This is one of many terms for both nutraceutical and functional food however and each has no legal definition thus demonstrating the uncertainty of what they actually are [7].

Given the broad definition given by creator Defelice, any well balanced diet which offers preventative measures of disease, such as reducing weight gain to avoid obesity related diseases could be viewed as a nutraceutical.

Furthermore, in a lecture given by Defelice in 2014 he identified the lack of evidence supporting his 1989 term. In regards to the research studies conducted around nutraceuticals and functional foods he stated“…and most of them have proven that these things do not work. Not proven. The results of clinical studies have shown that they do not work.”[2] Yet companies still push these terms to market amongst the health conscious consumer.

What is the benefit of making health claims?

According to the Neilson survey in 2015, consumers were willing to pay more for foods and dietary items which were perceived to be healthier for them [4]. The survey also identified that health claims on food labelling drove up the sale of items. Including those that were already considered healthy foods. This data highlights that labelling products as ‘healthy’ or ‘superfood’ etc. has massive monetary incentive when it comes to marketing products.

Research done by the Mintel Group identified that there was a 36% increase in dietary product launches in 2015 with the term “superfood”, “superfruit” or “supergrain” [5]. Further identifying that these marketing terms perpetuate the billion dollar industry which is the 21st century health food market.

“….identifying that these marketing terms perpetuate the billion dollar industry which is the 21st century health food market.”

Interestingly, the claims of nutritional superiority can be marketed to promote gender bias in society. Done by promoting the prevention of disease, like aging, encouraging girls and women to purchase. Buying only into the social constructs of our society with no scientific basis [7][8].

So what is the answer?

Health IS subjective, however research shows these terms are merely for driving sales rather than focusing on an individuals goals or wellbeing. Often these terms hold no legal definition or specific scientific backing and continue to make health claims after the suggested benefit has been disproven [7].

Next time you’re at the grocery shop don’t feel pressured to reach for the more pricey superfood or organic fruits, veg, cereals, etc. Because the science shows you can still achieve a nutrient diverse healthy diet without splashing the extra dollars.

and finally

Enjoy eating! x

This blog is not to persuade anybody into avoiding or eating certain foods but to educate based on factual data surrounding the discussed topic. So that as consumers we can make more educated decisions to align with our individual diet and fitness goals. This is a brief and general overview of a very large topic.

References

  1. Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June – 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of WHO, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. The definition has not been amended since 1948. https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/frequently-asked-questions
  2. Aronson, J., 2016. Defining ‘nutraceuticals’: neither nutritious nor pharmaceutical. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, [online] 83(1), pp.8-19. Available at: <https://bpspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/bcp.12935> [Accessed 28 January 2021].
  3. Israetel, D., Davis, D., Case, D. and Hoffmann, D., n.d. The Renaissance Diet 2.0. 1st ed. Capter 17 pp.199-229.
  4. Nielson Global Health and Wellness Report. We are what we eat. Healthy Eating Trends Around the World. January 2015. Accessed 1/13/2018.
  5. Mintel Group. Super growth for “super” foods: New Product development shoots up 202% globally over the past five years. May 15, 2016. Accessed 1/13/2018.
  6. Superfoods or Superhype?. (2021). Retrieved 29 January 2021, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/superfoods/
  7. Smith, R. (2021). The Myth of Natural Superfoods. Retrieved 27 January 2021, from https://wsimag.com/food-and-wine/50447-the-myth-of-natural-superfoods
  8. 1 Sikka T. Contemporary superfood cults. Nutritionism, neoliberalism and gender, in Food Cults: How Fads, Dogma, and Doctrine Influence Diet. Cargill K, ed., Rowan & Littlefield, 2017, pages 87-108

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