Well I will start by saying, that in the ideal world, I wouldn’t have to write about this. But it’s not an ideal world and here we are.
I want to begin by sharing my thoughts about what has happened with food in the last few centuries, so sit and get comfortable, or just skip to the last few paragraphs.
Once upon a time, we hunted and gathered- yeah, that paleo thing. But it wasn’t about being uber cool or righteously healthy, it was merely a day to day activity to fill the bellies of your family.
Monkey-swing forward a few thousand years and we land in the world where some people grow the food, some people eat the food, and there is a trade which occurs to do so. It is this critical point where we moved from self-sufficient to symbiotic and food made the critical shift from being a necessity to a commodity. At this stage food was still food- no wrappers, no labels, no claims.
Then came the industrial revolution, efficiency and profit margin begins to inform how our food is produced. How can we make materials go further, how can we make calories cheaper? And equally as important, how do we speak to the consumer in a way that compels them to buy OUR product, over our competitors. This process may have been born out of necessity, due to scarcity of calories during war times, however, in developed countries at least, we are definitely not at risk running out of calories, but still have the hangover of empty calories being sold at insanely cheap prices. And the return on investment in these void calories, well to put it bluntly, obesity, increased risk of heart disease and cancer risk.
So it’s here I am going to pick up on the point I touched on earlier- the ‘how do I reel them in to choose my product’ sentiment in the food industry and explain how this actually informs a lot of what we eat…unless you can think outside the (cereal) box.
Advertising and marketing in a wondrous thing. It taps in to our deep seeded monkey brain, speaks to our survival mechanisms (namely fear and want for survival) and, all things going to plan, drives us to buy whatever it is that is on offer that has, explicitly or not, delivers us a safer, more comfortable, risk-free and semmingly affluent life. After all, at the end of the day we humans really just want to find a genetically sufficient partner, produce a slightly more improved version of ourselves so that we can leave the world with a suitable legacy, to reduce the fear in the painful fact that we won’t live forever. Cynical….probably, but I never advertised myself otherwise.
OK, cool Harriet, now that you totally over simplified my being and have me teetering on the edge of an existential crisis, what the HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH TREADING LABELS!” Well, It’s because when it comes to food packaging, labels, health claims, the taste of a food, the sweetness of a product, textures and advertising of said product, very little of this is left to chance. If it comes in a packet, chances are there is a whole lot of psychology that has gone into the product to not only get you to pick it up, but to actually but the thing. With 3,000 + products on offer in a supermarket it’s a cut throat industry, which doesn’t often have our best interests at heart.
Food trends are just as fickle as runway trends, in fact they quite often go hand in hand. It was low fat, to go with the g-string leotards, group aerobics and big hair, then it was low carb to go with the Tai-bo bashing, fast talking flip phone wielding folks. And today it’s more brown paper packages, mason jars and wooden board righteousness foe the activated human who identifies their food choices as being a part of their sense of self.
And food industry are always two steps ahead. Fat reported as bad? Johnny- Cut the fat, fill it with sugar and slap a big ‘fat-free’ speech bubble on the front of the bag- go! Carbs the problem with our ever widening society? Quick! Arthur- Remove the carbs, find something else to make it taste sweet, no matter what the long term implications are, and brag about the ‘natural sweetness’ to pull in consumers. Holy bajeeezus batman, have you been following Instagram? ‘Fitspo’ is so hot right now! The people want to get ‘shredded’, ‘detoxed’ and be ‘nourished’ all at the same time…what to do? I know, take the old muesli, add some soy protein isolate chunks, wrap half of it in brown paper with quirky ‘skinny’ font in a ‘thin’ box for the ladies, because sub-consciously, that’s what they are looking for. Throw the other half of the exact same product in a ‘jacked-up’ box and use ‘man-words’ that sound like the food inside is machinery- tough, hard-hitting, engineered for performance, cut, ripped, horse power. Phew- we got there. It doesn’t matter what is actually inside, as long as they pick up the product on the pre-tense that what is inside is going to meet their internal desires, we have won!
Words that make you pick up products: Protein rich, wholesome, low fat, all natural, just like home, hand-made, artisian, crafted, organic, sugar-free, healthy, nourishing… the list goes on. In fact if it has a hash-tag with 1 million+ uses, then chances are you will find it on a package at the supermarket. Then there is the physical packaging. Company’s look to convey the words listed above in the look of the package too. Thinner bottles to designate a ‘diet friendly’ food, brown paper to convey environmental concern, metallic lettering to insinuate premium ingredients or quirky characters for reel in kids. Think of the last cereal box you picked up? Why did you do it? Me? I picked up a box because it had ‘protein’ scrawled across the front. The protein content on second glance was not impressive and in fact, not even the major macronutrient in the cereal. Their attention to detail is a) impeccable and b) infuriating, because on a bad day, when your guard is down, then you could be very much forgiven for picking up a product based on the look and feel of it- despite what is actually inside.
But where does all this information leave us? Is it realistic to give up on supermarket shopping all together and hot-foot it to the farmer’s markets? Well, that would be great, and maybe there will come a time when this will be the case, but until then, the best thing I can recommend is approach with caution. Approach the supermarket with a critical eye and expect that there is going to be buzz words calling to your inner lizard brain. Then, make a game of it! Can you get in and out without extra purchases? Collect a buzz word- what’s on trend right now, start a conversation with your friends and share in the hilarity that is advertising and marketing. Supermarket buzz word bingo anyone?
On a practical sense, there are a few things you can look for with your food labels to make better choices.
· Fibre- aim for products that have greater than 3g per serve
· Sugar- 1 tsp is about 4-5g. Check out the sugar component per serve of the product, divide it by 4 and ask yourself if you would add that many spoonfuls to it yourself. If the answer is no, put it down.
· Protein- I like to aim for about 10g for snacks and 20-30g for main meals. If a product claims to be ‘protien rich’, check out how the protein content compares to fat and carbohydrates- they should at LEAST be in the same ball park.
· Number of ingredients- Is sugar is in the top 5? Think again. Similarly, if there is more than 5 ingredients, or has lots of numbers/letter ingredients, perhaps think again, unless you can recognise all the ingredients as food.
· Watch out for health claims on the package. If it has a claim at all, get critical. The best foods don’t come in a packet and don’t even need to claim how healthful they are- they are called food. The rest are products and should be treated as such.
I am not saying we need to cut out all packaged foods and eat unprocessed, fresh, local produce…well that would be nice, but I would get run out of town for even suggesting it. All I am trying to communicate is that if we switch on a bit more when making food choices, we could be making a lot more healthy choices, and a lot less choices driven by our survival driven lizard brain, which when left in charge, would have us eating Krispy Cremes and slugging down tropical fruit punch. And no one wants that, now do they? (don’t answer that- I’ll get upset)