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6 Tricks Used to Sell Junk Food

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6 Tricks Used to Sell Junk Food

The nation’s largest producer of baby carrots launched an advertising campaign earlier this year positioning baby carrots as the extreme new junk food. The send-up includes all the bells and whistles you might expect from the worst of seductive junk-food advertisers, replete with fancy new “junk food packaging.” It’s hilarious, but one has to wonder what this says about the efficacy of junk-food marketing. As in, if carrots are adopting these tactics, something must be working. And working well! According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend $1.6 billion annually to reach children through advertising; while obesity statistics show that 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are now classified as obese.

While many of the large-scale food production companies are leaning toward wellness initiatives, is the food industry really moving in the right direction, or are those just marketing ruses? Ultimately, makers of junk food have goals to meet and shareholders to please—can they really be spending millions of dollars trying to encourage people to eat less of their products? Me thinks, a big, fat, salty, sugary “no.” Here are some of the tricks the junk food industry uses to subtly sway us into buying their wares.

1. Misleading labels
You’d think with all the regulations we have that labeling would be pretty straightforward—but if there’s a workaround, there’s a marketing department that will find it. Here are a few labeling tricks to look for.

• Ingredients
This is a tricky one, duping even the savviest of label scourers. Most of us know that ingredients are listed in order from most to least and we’ll look to see where, say, sugars or fats are listed in the order. But, ingredient groups aren’t required to be listed together. So, for example, an item could contain corn syrup, cane sugar, and fructose in seemingly minor quantities toward the bottom of the list–but if you combined them together in a general group of “sugar,” they quickly move to the top.

• “Made With Whole Grains”
We keep hearing about the importance of eating whole grains, but just because a product touts that it is “made with” or “contains” whole grains doesn’t mean that whole grains make up the bulk of it. Many grain-based junk food items are predominantly made with refined grains, with a spattering of whole grains thrown in for labeling credibility. Check to see where on the ingredient list the word “whole” is. If the first ingredient is “whole” wheat flour (or other grain), you’re in luck. If it’s way down the list, you’ve been punked.

• Serving Size
Serving size has nothing to do with the ingredients list, but it can have a dramatic effect on the nutrition panel. By divvying up a serving into several smaller servings, the less desirable nutritional elements (calories, sodium, fat, sugar, etc) are significantly reduced.

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Read more: Children, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, General Health, Healthy Schools, News & Issues, ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

423 comments

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6:59AM PST on Nov 7, 2013

3 yrs later, this is still an important reminder. Thanks for sharing.

5:59PM PDT on Jun 24, 2011

Kudos on this subject! This should really be a "crime", but we just accept it as "status quo". Wake up....feed your children and family well, plant food and fruit!

3:52AM PDT on May 12, 2011

I think it starts with what people eat at home, if I go to McDonald's or Burger King I always get an orange juice to drink, it's much smaller than a large soda but much healthier. Restaurants or food manufactures will make and sell what people want to buy or they go out of business. Put the blame where it belongs.

7:00AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

wow noted thx.

1:26PM PST on Mar 5, 2011

This is almost unbelievable no wonder there are so many obese US citizens, these food manufacturers are pure evil.

11:45AM PST on Feb 1, 2011

Interesting. And it's our job as consumers to not fall prey to these marketng techniques and to just say "no."

7:48AM PST on Dec 29, 2010

loved the new baby carrot packaging

8:20PM PST on Dec 14, 2010

thanx for article

9:08AM PST on Nov 22, 2010

wow, good! I've wondered why people buy unhealthy foods...

10:22AM PST on Nov 21, 2010

i try not to eat junk food. its hard to give up at first but if u dont eat it for awhile i found that when u go back and try to eat junk it tastes gross and u feel sick. i feel so much better when im not filling my body with junk

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Another win for dark chocolate.

Interesting article!

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