Guest Post: 5 food marketing messages you need to stop believing

I’m delighted to have Kirstin Kadé contribute to my blog on the marketing messages used around food. Kirstin has debunked some of the most popular food marketing terms in this guest post!

Kirstin is a fellow blogger at Taste & See and is studying to become a Registered Nutritionist!

Every day there are weird and wonderful new and ‘innovative’ food products that make their way onto supermarket shelves, promising us things that are often neither accurate nor based on evidence. Believe it or not, but even ‘health food’ products are produced with the intention to sell, and sales equal profit that help a business run and grow larger. Here are a few food marketing messages that I have come across over the past couple of months that are often very misleading.

Guilt-free’ – The marketing of ‘guilt-free’ products are becoming increasingly common, with snacks, treats, and ‘guilt-free’ comfort foods popping up all over. Guilt is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: “A feeling of worry or unhappiness that you have because you have done something wrong or committed a crime”. This kind of language can be really damaging when attached to food. Unfortunately, food guilt has become the norm within our diet-obsessed culture. Instead of embracing balance, moderation, and being able to enjoy all foods freely, many of us categorise foods into one of two extremes. Food is often labelled as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘green’ or ‘red’, and ‘permitted’ or ‘prohibited’. The idea of ‘guilt-free’ foods sets us up to believe that when we eat other foods we should feel ‘guilty’ about it. Unfortunately, this appeals to an all-or-nothing mindset around food. When we associate excessive guilt with what we eat and begin to experience it on a daily basis, these feelings become rather unhealthy and are often associated with disordered eating behaviours. Rather than give in to this kind of marketing, remember that you are allowed to choose foods that you enjoy and bring you pleasure (even if it means enjoying some chocolate or a slice of cake once in a while, no guilt needed).

Chemical-free’ – ALL foods are made up of complex chemical molecules. Chemicals are the building blocks of life, and the idea that ‘chemical-free’ food products are better for you than others without the label is a bit misleading. The term ‘chemical-free’ is arguably one that has been devised by someone in the marketing world to scare us into avoiding anything and everything that doesn’t contain the claim. In the words of Paracelsus, the father of toxicology: “The dose makes the poison”. This basically means that the toxicity of any particular chemical depends on how much of it enters the body. Even some of the most natural ingredients contain harmful chemicals, for example, broccoli contains a form of the lethal chemical cyanide, called allyl cyanide. The reason that it is not harmful to us when we consume broccoli is that:

  1. We don’t eat nearly enough broccoli for it to be toxic.
  2. Our liver, kidneys, and digestive system do a great job of helping us ‘detox’ daily.

Moving on to the dreaded E numbers, and ingredients that we don’t know how to pronounce. Did you know that E300 on a food label refers to vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is an essential micronutrient that we need to prevent scurvy? So you can choose to be mindful about what ingredients you consume, but once again, don’t let it create unnecessary anxiety and fear around food.

Refined sugar-free’ – ‘Refined sugar’ has become the latest dietary evil, and increasingly more food products have popped up on shelves that proclaim to be free from all forms of refined sugar. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of what ‘refined sugar’ really is, with the misconception that it only refers to white cane sugar. Believe it or not, but coconut sugar, rice malt syrup, date syrup, and agave nectar are all forms of refined sugar. They have all been through some form of processing before being bottled up nicely for us to purchase. Without any clear guidelines on the use of the term ‘refined sugar-free’, the door has been left wide open for food companies to use it to appeal to the health-conscious consumer. However, it’s important to be aware that the phrase carries very little weight as it largely depends on a manufacturer’s own interpretation. In terms of nutritional guidelines, the NHS recommends that we limit the amount of ‘free sugars’ (defined as any sugars added to food or drinks, including honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar) in our diet to ±30g per day, regardless of how much or little it has been refined.

Clean ingredients’ – This is another food-related term that is highly subjective. In its simplest form, the phrase might refer to ‘whole’, ‘unprocessed’ foods (two more ambiguous and highly subjective terms). To some, it may involve excluding or only buying organically grown versions of certain fruits and vegetables, such as the dirty dozen. To others, it may involve excluding whole food groups from their diet. ‘Clean’ food products seem like a breath of fresh air in a modern Western supermarket, which is generally lined with aisles of salty, sugary, oily, cheap products. However, due to its ambiguity, the idea of purchasing products containing only ‘clean ingredients’ is not really necessary. The term is not regulated, so it is generally placed on a product at the discretion of the food manufacturer. Eating whole ingredients is great, in fact, whole fruits and vegetables are some of the easiest and healthiest foods to incorporate into your diet, but don’t be fooled by food products that claim to only contain ‘clean ingredients’ (particularly if they cost an arm and a leg to purchase).

Gluten-free’ – Now I know that this is going to be a controversial one, but please hear me out. Gluten has become synonymous with words like ‘unhealthy’, ‘toxic’, and ‘inflammatory’, and has been at the top of the NO list of many popular diets for years. There have been claims that gluten is the root cause of headaches, leaky gut, autism, severe immune reactions, and infertility, so it’s no wonder that so many of have us binned bread and gone down this route. The reality is, however, that there is very little evidence behind these claims. Many of the gluten-free (GF) alternatives on supermarket shelves end up being higher in sugar and fat and are usually far more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Having mentioned this, if gluten-containing foods do make you feel uncomfortable then please make an appointment to see your doctor, as it is important to rule out any serious gastrointestinal problems with the help of a professional rather than self-diagnose. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy some of the more wholesome gluten-free foods out there, including grains like amaranth, buckwheat, teff, quinoa, and millet. These are all delicious, packed with nutrients and fibre, and don’t have the hefty price tag of specialised GF products.


Her Campus – The New Eating Disorder You Might Not Realize You Have: Food Guilt

Huffington Post – Food Guilt: How to Eat Without Shame

Huffington Post – Everything Is Chemicals

Medical Daily – Clean living not chemical free natural foods contain chemicals

The Nutrition Press – What does refined sugar mean?

The Guardian –The sugar conspiracy

Huffington Post – We Need To Talk About ‘refined sugar-free’

The Guardian – Why we fell for clean eating

The Guardian – Orthorexia fad restrictive diet clean eating

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *