7 Big Food Marketing Gimmicks

I’m surprised no store employee or manager escorted me from the supermarket premises today. Looking for food to snap pictures of for this post, I kind of went a bit crazy once I started. I found so much material!

If aspects such as added sugar, overpackaging and dead food lacking nutrients don’t turn you off of processed food, maybe the fact that Big Food thinks we’re gullible at best will do the trick.

1. Vegetarian eggs

vegetarian eggs
What’s up with the styrofoam here?

Wait, what? Chickens eat bugs, worms, maggots and so on, which they dig around for in the dirt. In other words, they don’t naturally eat a vegetarian diet. So, while you can feel good about supporting a farm that does not feed its hens animal by-products, you do have to question how the egg producers prevented them from eating bugs, worms, maggots and so on. Literally cooping them up indoors would achieve this end. And don’t let language such as “cage-free” fool you! That means nearly as little as “all-natural.” Cage-free hens live indoors for most of their lives, with access to a patch of grass near the end of their lives, by which time they have been conditioned not to go out there.* I buy my eggs from the CSA that my intentional community runs. These chickens spend their days outside eating what chickens like to eat (things that move).

2. Best-before dates

Does Diet Pepsi actually ever go bad? Probably about as much as aging Round Up does. Best-before dates encourage people to waste food and thus buy more. Generally unregulated, these dates do not indicate food safety. These suggested dates from the manufacturer indicate the food company’s opinion of peak quality. Most real food has no best-before date stamped on its package because it has no package. Follow the best-to-keep-it-on-the-store-shelf rule.

3. Health claims

fruit chia

This company certainly understands its target market! You can give it a gold star for that at least. I think it missed an opportunity for another health claim in the space between the American flag and “Blueberry.” Imagine the health claims of the blueberries alone if the fruit grew with slogans printed on it (maybe Monsanto is working on that):

  • Packed with antioxidants
  • Rich in vitamins C, E and K
  • One cup contains 3.6 grams of fiber

4. Egregious greenwashing

Panda Puffs

Back when my kids were little, before I eliminated plastic from our lives, I admit I bought cereal like this (and other junk). Of course we all want to save the pandas and the apes and the chimpanzees and the lemurs. The marketers, knowing this, play on our desire to do the right thing (that and our kids’ love of cute furry animals). Consuming sugary, overpackaged cereal probably isn’t the best way to help wildlife. Cutting disposable plastics will help however.

5. Sugar by any other name would taste as sweet

various sugar

Agave nectar. Barley malt. Beet sugar. Blackstrap molasses. They all have such benign-sounding names. Sugar is sugar and processed food has 56 names for the stuff. Your liver can’t tell the difference between vilified high fructose corn syrup and organic brown rice syrup.

6. Down-on-the-farm-all-American wholesomeness

family farm

A few years ago, when my kids returned from their great uncle’s canola farm in Saskatchewan, they told me about the giant barrels of pesticides they saw with skulls plastered all over them. Their great uncle owns a family farm just like the farmers who make the ingredients for this junky stuff.

7. Pasture-raised™

pasture-raised

God help us all. Pasture-raised has been trademarked? Are we this far removed from knowing where our food comes from—where it should come from—that consumers, or at least people who work at the US Patent and Trademark Office, think pasture-raised dairy cows represent some new-fangled technological breakthrough that requires intellectual property protection?! This one just depresses me. Someone please leave a good joke in the comments to cheer me up…

*Read The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the full story on cage-free.

42 Comment

  1. W0uld have been fun t0 watch y0u taking the pictures 🙂

    1. 🙂 I’ll have to wear a wig and dark glasses next time.

  2. I am fascinated by the “semantics” of food. Food manufacturers really work the system to make their products sound appealing to consumers, and most consumers don’t take the time to investigate what those claims really mean. Ignorance is not bliss! Information is power, and educating people about what to look for (and avoid) when buying their food can be life changing. Thank you for shedding some light on this important topic!

    1. Thank you, Karen. You almost need an interpreter at the grocery store! One of the many reasons I love the farmer’s market is I can usually speak with the person who grew the food and ask all sorts of questions. Usually I like the answers!

  3. I recognise some of this nonsense but have yet to come across vegetarian eggs. One that really riles me is “vine grown tomatoes”. What else would they be…? Corporations and marketers get away with this nonsense because people are so disconnected from their food they don’t have a clue.

    A new book has been published in the UK, Swallow It by Joanna Blythman. She is one of our leading investigate food journalists and her latest book deals with unravelling the synthetic compounds that barely even make it onto obligatory labels. I suspect her book will make me very pleased I don’t do processed food. It’s on my reading list so I shall keep you posted.

    1. Hahaha! Vine-grown tomatoes! I have seen those too. That’s totally absurd! Before I left the store, I did look around the produce department but I didn’t want to push my luck taking more pictures and also thought to myself, “There’s probably not much marketing in here.” I completely forgot about the tomatoes. Thanks for pointing that out. That’s a good one! I’m bracing myself for “Dirt-grown potatoes (TM)”!

      I look forward to hearing about the book. I just started Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate” and met him Monday night after his lecture here in Mountain View! He was brilliant.

      1. Maybe they will tradmark “dirt grown”. :d

  4. It’s a great article. Looking for joke…

    1. Thanks, Aggie. I meant for this to be funny but when I finished writing it, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

  5. Reblogged this on 2 Boys 1 Homestead and commented:
    People need to open their eyes. Or their brains. One seems easier than the other.

    1. Thanks for that and the reblog!

  6. I love your work. I shake my head too when I see some of the marketing slogans on packaging. If it’s “all natural” why isn’t it in the refrigerator? I ask myself. It is a shame that sooooo many people fall for it.

    1. Thank you so much, Glenda. I agree the “all-natural” label is meaningless. I saw some juice today on the shelf in a tetra pak with all-natural plastered all over the label and wondered how it had managed not to rot. This is what the majority of people eat. But I like to think our habits are changing.

  7. I so saw that “vegetarian fed” label on eggs the other day. Egg cartons seem to be the worst for misleading labels, in my opinion. That and energy bars that are basically candy bars. I never noticed the “family farm owned” thing, but the first thing I would have thought of is all of the families in this area who own conventional farms and think hippies are fools. My boyfriend’s dad has cows, but since he used to work in oil I’ve never dared ask him about his agricultural practices, I’m sure it’d start a fight.

    I bought coffee the other day, trying to find the most eco-friendly option I could at my conventional grocery store to encourage them to offer more sustainable methods (I usually buy my coffee at the health food store). The can I got was clearly marketed to the sustainable crowd, brown and green label that says “container made from recycled materials”. That was the best I could find, no fair trade, no organic, no rainforest alliance, nothing. At least it isn’t plastic (except the lid), but the label is definitely trying to convince people it’s more environmentally minded than it is. I bought it, because my conventional grocery store offers local raw honey so I figure there’s a chance to try to get it to make some changes.

    I think next time I’m just going to ask the manager if they can offer something, even though I can get it elsewhere I think it might get more people to make better choices. They so know me as the “no bags” lady, so they know I’ve been going there a long time.

    1. The eggs are SO misleading! I ran out of eggs over the holidays last year and stood in front of the egg case at Whole Foods for a while trying to decipher the labels. I felt like a cryptologist. Another woman came along and had the same look on her face. We determined that the most expensive ones (of course) were pastured. But I would rather speak with the farmer directly. I did that at the farmer’s market when I first started to buy pastured eggs: “Do your hens go outside” and “Do your hens peck in the dirt and eat grubs?” and “Do you keep the lights out at night in the henhouse?”

      That’s a good strategy to ask for better products, especially when they know you. I do that sometimes even though I am pretty sure the store doesn’t carry whatever it is I want, in the hopes they will start to carry it. Right now I’m searching for paper packaging tape. I’m surprised at how difficult it is to find!

      1. Coincidentally, last night I was reading the egg chapter in On Food and Cooking (the Harold McGee book), and he said chickens are often “recycled” when they pass their prime, fed to the other hens. Now I’m thinking that vegetarian fed hens label is looking a lot less ridiculous than I thought the first time I saw it. (deja vu)

      2. I LOVE Harold McGee! I have read that chapter but it was a while ago so I don’t remember that part but horrifying as that is, it’s not surprising either :/ So I agree vegetarian feed is MUCH better than chicken cannibalism but I want to have my cake (eggs) and eat it (them) too, i.e., pastured and fed no animal by-products. I don’t know how you can really be sure that’s what you’re getting unless you either raise your own chickens or buy eggs directly from an honest farmer. The egg labels have got to be the most confusing/misleading labels out there!

  8. oh dear no jokes forthcoming – we just have to rely on imagining you in a possibly slightly demented state as you snapped pics of the gross misrepresentations that are offered to us every day of our lives. we are so far down the rabbit hole that people have lost common sense – what happened to a bit of judicious thinking about food anyway? AND how dare they take these words off us and and twist them into lies ??
    Sandra

    1. Thanks Sandra. Well that did make me laugh 🙂 Down the rabbit hole is a good way to describe where we are in relation to our food system of food-like substances. I know people have to take responsibility for what they eat, but this type of food is what’s the most widely available and pushed—and not just by companies, by the US government…well I guess that’s the same thing though isn’t it. Throw misleading and confusing marketing on top of it and the majority is really at the mercy of Big Food. But at least people are fed up.

      1. the other shocking thing which you address really well in your blog is that so many people dont know how to cook anymore – and of course they are the ones susceptible to this level of marketing.

      2. Nope, people don’t cook and so they rely on processed “food.” Just last night I discussed this phenomenon with my neighbor. I said, “You only need to learn how to cook if you eat.”

  9. LOL!! I read an article last year about a guy who DID get escorted out of one of those “Healthy organic” stores because he found the stickers the store had to place over the growing farm label that said “Locally Grown”. But under the sticker, was the original place, like 5 states away…

    1. :O Wow! That’s pretty brazen—the stickers I mean. Good for the guy who took pics! I do shop at Whole Foods for some things, but I stick to the perimeter of the store (produce, meat, dairy), never the aisles where all the processed stuff is and there sure is a ton of it. Many “healthy organic” stores carry piles of junk.

  10. I don’t have a funny joke, but I got my Friday pants on and it’s going to be a good day so hugs to you! 🙂 (and I feel the same way about all of this false advertising aka lying on food products, ugh!) Thanks for shedding some light on it!

    1. Thanks for that. It’s a beautiful sunny day here today. Happy Friday and have a great weekend 🙂

  11. This is why I steer clear of pre-packaged foods labeled “organic”. The checks and balances in place to verify that it’s ACTUALLY organic are slim to none. Not to mention the definition of organic (as far as manufacturers are concerned) is fairly vague and leaves a lot of slack for them to stretch the truth.

    1. I just steer clear of packaged anything. Even if the food in there truly is organic, it’s probably full of added sugar and other stuff I don’t want to eat. Organic sugar is still sugar. I worry about the organic label too. I know Big Food wants to see the regulations watered down :/

  12. Great post! Love the photos and the comments. As for tomatoes (commenter above), I’ve never seen “vine-grown,” but I have seen “vine-ripened.” Maybe I’m naive, but I always thought it meant the tomatoes were picked ripe, instead of being picked green and dosed with ethylene gas to make them red?

    1. Thanks Amy. That sounds like a good explanation to me. If so, it’s a sad state of affairs that what should be a normal practice (no gassing) is so rare, the term is used for marketing :/ I found this article: http://tcpermaculture.com/site/2013/05/14/vine-ripened-tomatoes-yet-another-lie-by-modern-ag/ I can’t vouch for its credibility, but it makes sense and the writer does provide some citations.

  13. Great post! The “U” in the circle on the bar in #3 means the food is kosher.

    1. Thank you for that and for the info on the “U” 🙂

  14. Fabulous article, you maked me laugh out loud with the “pasture-raised cows”.

    1. Thanks! I saved that one for last because I thought it was the most absurd. What’s next, dirt-grown(TM) carrots??? That’s probably out there too…

  15. I feel your pain, Lol! i have a running commentary in my head similar to this every time I go into a grocery store. It is so frustrating, there are times when I would prefer to be ignorant.

    1. I sometimes would prefer to be ignorant, and those around me also wish I was. They have to listen to my food horror stories constantly 😉

      1. I had a good laugh at this…yes, those around me definitely wish I was as well!

  16. […] I keep linking to Zero Waste Chef every week, but she keeps hitting it out of the park! Go read 7 Big Food Marketing Gimmicks and have your eyes […]

    1. Thanks for the mention 🙂

  17. […] course, it isn’t just Marketing Hype for Pets, check out what humans are subjected to by reading 7 Big Food Marketing Gimmicks by fellow WordPress blogger The Zero Waste Chef.  The article is quite thought-provoking, but the […]

  18. Ellen in Conn says: Reply

    Dear Zero-Waste,
    I only just popped in here, and would like to make a few comments, that may or may not have to do with your main theme:
    Sugar: there is sugar, and then there is sugar. Some is produced with bad labor practices, bad ecological practices, and by removing every smidge of nutrition except for the calories. Others protect native forests (maple), use decent labor practices (true Fair Trade), have “better” nutrition profiles (cocnut sap sugar).
    Eggs: I give my chickens “vegetarian” feed, and the rest is up to them. In summer I give them weeds and grubs and slugs.
    The blueberry bar: that logo is for Orthodox Union, for the Kosher folks.
    Panda Puffs: I like the map of China behind the panda. Don’t know what it has to do with peanut butter, though.
    Welch’s is a farmer-owned co-operative, which, as a co-op worker myself, I prefer to Kraft-Hunts as a juice source, on those rare occasions that I buy juice. When my kids were little, it was 2 or 3 cans/bottles a week, and then the little one took a nutrition class and wanted to know why I gave them juice to drink. Later she realized that water-only would never have flown.
    The butter: Organic Valley is also a farmers’ co-operative, but I don’t know where they get off TM-ing pasture-raised, unless they wanted something of their own and grass-fed was already in general use.

    1. Hi Ellen, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      Sugar: I agree some sugar is better and I do buy fair trade, eat maple syrup and so on. I was talking about the way your body processes sugar. (I’m a big fan of Dr. Lustig.) Your pancreas and liver don’t know the difference between refined white sugar and brown sugar. I am the first to admit I eat too much added sugar but I also know the stuff is toxic. So that’s the perspective I was coming from.
      2. I’m not an expert but I think that’s more or less what chickens are supposed to eat. The problem I have with these eggs is that I think vegetarian feed is a sneaky way of glossing over the fact that these hens have no access to the outdoors. How else can the farmers prevent them from eating grubs and slugs?
      3. I think the map represents the pandas habitat. When you buy this cereal, apparently some money goes toward saving pandas.
      4. I like co-ops a lot, I think that’s the direction we need to go toward in order to change our economic system that’s at war with the climate.
      5. Oh I have good news on the butter! A lawyer commented on my Facebook page the other day that “TM just means ‘Ooooh, we don’t have a trademark registration but we really wish we could get one, so let’s freak everyone out…’ ” 🙂

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