Marketing Masquerading as Science

The following is a post written by contributor Andy Bellatti, MS, RD.


When it comes to resources – whether they be human, financial, or technological – the food industry is stocked with a mighty arsenal. Big Food’s spending power is most often evidenced by its multi-million dollar marketing campaigns.

A few examples:

Those are, of course, mammoth amounts compared to the paltry advertising budget for the federal “Eat more” fruit and vegetable federal program. And while the food industry would not waste one cent on ineffective marketing, there is one problem: advertisements are blatant. They scream “Buy this product.” They certainly get the message across, but there is increasing resistance toward – and skepticism of – advertising, particularly when it involves marketing to children.

Enter the health professional. Doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, and fitness trainers may not have the cachet of or name recognition of an A-list movie star or athlete, but they bring along something the food industry desperately seeks – health legitimacy.

There are two angles to this (willing) co-optation of health professionals: outreach to the general public, and outreach to other health professionals – if you’re looking to get a group of doctors or dietitians on board, who better to talk to them than one of their peers, right?

The real danger here is that industry knows exactly how to sweet-talk health professionals – and their respective organizations – into joining their ranks in order to be “part of the solution.” Rather than truthfully state that doctors and dietitians simply help a company acquire that highly sought-after health halo, industry instead talks about the need to “work together” (while following industry’s rules, of course) and “offer healthy choices” (these choices are more accurately described as “less unhealthy,” and are usually an afterthought when it comes to marketing).

Marketing is then expertly spun into “objective science,” largely shrouded by food industry-created institutes (i.e.: Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, General Mills’ Bell Institute, Nestlé’s Nutrition Institute, and Frito-Lay’s SnackSense).

The goal of these institutes is, by and large, to present that company as a leader in health and wellness. But, this isn’t the well-paid marketing executives telling you; these are real health professionals – with degrees and credentials. Alas, as a recent New York Times article on the never-ending battle between the sugar and high fructose corn syrup trade groups stated, “academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns as rival industries use them to try to inflict damage on their competitors or defend their reputations.”

These institutes – and the materials they champion – are no amateur-hour creation. They ride that fine line between scientific fact and spin. Let’s take a look at this “Benefits of Cereal” fact sheet by the Bell Institute.

  • The fact sheet uses calories (an objective measure) to deceptively claim that cereal is a healthier choice than oatmeal. However, oatmeal is higher in fiber and minerals. Additionally, the vast majority of General Mills’ cereals contain nine or ten grams of sugar per serving; plain oatmeal has no added sugars. Calories should not be viewed strictly from a quantitative lens; quality of calories is key.
  • “Cereal eaters consume less fat,” reads the fact sheet. This may be true, but it’s a moot point, especially given the fact that villianising dietary fat is an outdated way of looking at nutrition. Certainly, the inclusion of healthful fats like nuts and seeds at breakfast time should be encouraged (much more so than starchy, sugary, low-fat cereals).
  • “Cereal accounts for only 4 percent of children’s sugar intake.” This is food industry spin at its best. The fact that a serving of cereal containing 10 grams of sugar is a minimal contribution to children’s diets speaks more to the fact that the average American child is eating and drinking a preposterous amount of sugar. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends that children aged 4 – 8 consume no more than 12 grams – that’s three teaspoons – of added sugar a day. A serving of General Mills’ Reese’s Puffs cereal already accounts for eighty percent of that daily total.

While industry co-optation of health experts is nothing new (the tobacco industry employed this very tactic several decades ago), it is an insidious practice that boosts food companies’ public profile while fooling the public. True objectivity is literally priceless.

Food Politics article by Andy Bellatti, MS, RDAndy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others.  He is just as passionate about healthful eating as he is about food politics, deceptive Big Food marketing, and issues of sustainability, animal welfare, and social justice in our food system. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog (which, though now closed, has almost 2,000 archived posts). You can also follow Andy on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo credit: Mike Mozart Flickr Creative Commons

  • Jess @ Floptimism March 7, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    I’m so behind on my bloglovin feed that I am just now getting to reading this, so forgive me but…THANK YOU for sharing this. I’m so glad I didn’t miss this post completely, even if I am nearly a month late.