Seller of Greens

Food Marketing: The Blinding Distraction of “Healthy Food”

“Whether you like it or not, processed food is here to stay,” says professor Ciarán Forde. But wait, Barry Popkin writes that we must “reverse the rapid shift to diets dominated by a stage of high ultra-processed food intake” if we want to stem the global tide of non-communicable diseases arising from obesity. The dominant food policy narrative pits marketing of unhealthy processed food against a sustainable supply of nourishing, healthy food.

Unfortunately, the definition of a sustainable supply of nourishing, healthy food is elusive.

The Appeal of Stoplight Thinking

The notion of sorting food into stop, go, and caution categories lies at the heart of traffic light or stoplight diet systems. In 2006, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics decided that such diets have Grade I evidence for their effectiveness. But a new review by Colby Vorland and colleagues tells us that the evidence is not so clear.

It turns out that the belief in the value of traffic light labels for food is more of an article of faith than it is an evidence-based practice. Classification is far from being consistent across different implementations. The humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich might be junk food in one system and a relatively good option in another. Also, the terminology of the traffic light diet might apply to programs with many different components. So the isolated value of sorting foods into red, yellow, and green groupings has not been shown.

Vorland is quick to say that none of this means that traffic light systems are useless. They are merely unproven to work. Yet stoplight thinking is the foundation of a lot of ideas for reforming food systems.

A New Framework Needed

A great deal of energy goes into micro-regulation of food marketing. The UK has been working on a ban of junk food advertising for a year. Now the government is looking at another year of delay to figure out how to do this. Such small-scale efforts are doomed to failure.

The problem is that neither specific marketing tactics nor specific red-light foods lie at the heart of our problems with food. The problem is with a prevailing narrative, described recently in AJCN:

“One prevailing narrative underpins and enables the current industrial food system to focus solely on the quantity of food and calories produced and is based on assumptions that we need to maximize yields by ‘doubling food production by 2050.’ Efforts to minimize the social, health, or ecological costs are considered but seen as less important than the goal of increasing food production to ‘feed the world.’”

In other words, our global systems of food productions drive for an ever-expanding food supply. The quality of nutrition is secondary. The label of healthy food is merely a marketing tool to promote more and more food consumption and thus, higher and higher sales.

These systems for maximizing food consumption and supply must change. We don’t need more healthy food. We need healthier food systems. Ever more food at our fingertips is not making us healthier.

Click here for more on the role of ultra-processed foods in global food systems, here for the analysis by Vorland et al, and here for a report on sustainable food systems for the 21st century.

Seller of Greens, painting by Martiros Sarian / WikiArt

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February 11, 2022

One Response to “Food Marketing: The Blinding Distraction of “Healthy Food””

  1. February 11, 2022 at 7:17 am, Al Lewis said:

    I know this is a little off-topic but even “healthy” processed foods can be junk. Here is one whose label says: “NO ADDED SUGAR” that somehow has more added sugar than Coke, due to a loophole in the food labeling rules.