The discrepancy between what nutritionists say is healthy and what the general public believes comes from our susceptibility to clever marketing
Many of the discrepancies between what the public sees as healthy and how experts define it can be attributed to marketing.
Take granola and granola bars. They are made of things that we can all agree are healthy: oatmeal, nuts, fruit. And there are endless commercials to remind us of this. Think wholesome farmers standing in sunny wheat fields, or well-coiffed moms feeding their grinning toddlers. What the commercials never share with us is that the thing that makes our favorite granolas form crunchy clusters, or hold its shape in the form of big, thick, uniform bars, is sugar.
I suspect that this gap between messaging and reality is whats behind the results of a New York Times-led study this week showing that there are many foods where normal Americans and nutritionists diverge in terms of assessing how healthy they are. In surveying 672 nutritionists and 2,000 registered US voters, the polling firm Morning Consult asked the question, Is _____ healthy? and filled the blank with 100 different foods.
For certain foods the answer was obvious: kale, olive oil, almonds, carrots and apples are healthy, everyone agrees. Others were uniformly considered unhealthy, like soda, cookies, french fries and ice cream. But there were a lot of foods where opinions differed. Marketing appears to have confused things so much that theres disagreement over what it even means for a food to be healthful. Does it mean we could lose weight while eating it? Does it mean it wont give us diabetes if we consume it often? Does it mean it supplies nutrients to us in sufficient quantities?
Perhaps if we relied less on ads and more on actual information from actual experts, we would have a clearer picture.
Take SlimFast, one the most widely recognized weight loss shakes ever to hit the market. The number of Americans who believe SlimFast is healthy outnumber the experts two to one, according to the study. That might sound strange milk, water, sugar, oil and a thickening agent are the top five ingredients until you remember that SlimFasts last reported marketing budget was around $17m. Thats a lot of money, all intended to convince the buying public that being slim is the way to be healthy. (Spoiler: not necessarily.)
Also, consider frozen yogurt, the success of which has less to do with TV commercials and more to do with the number of shops selling it across the country. Marketed as a ubiquitous healthy alternative to ice cream, fro-yo shops have popped up everywhere not because theyre healthy, but because theyre cheap to open and can earn five times what it cost to produce a single serving. And why is it so cheap? Because fro-yo isnt actually frozen yogurt at all, in the traditional sense. Its often sugar, powdered milk and artificial flavoring.
Weve been allowing fluffy, sponsored media pieces and pervasive ads to dictate the public perception of healthy food for far too long. Thats why healthier dinner options, like quinoa, sushi and hummus, which lack corporate marketing machines, havent caught on nationally while winning the love of experts nationwide. Just because Good Morning America hasnt touted a foods health benefits doesnt mean its not worth adding to your repertoire.
Its time to truly develop an appreciation and a value for what food is and what it can and should do: provide us with energy, nourish our bodies to thrive, and be a healthy way to bond with our loved ones. And we need to prioritize those qualities over taking pretty packaging and slick advertising at face value, by remembering that what we see on TV is intended to sell us an image in hopes of profit, not educate us in hopes of giving us strong, healthy bodies.