Food ads reveal what we really eat


What’s the best way to find out what people really eat?

  1. Ask them what they eat.
  2. Observe which foods people are actually buying.

Answer: #2.  You knew that.

One way to gauge what people are actually buying: observe TV ads.  If the TV ads running with the March Madness basketball tournament are any measure, we’re not eating all that healthfully.  Some examples:

  1. Applebees is running ads for Bar Snacks featuring a group of thin young adults sharing a huge plate of gooey nachos.  Now re-imagine that ad with them eating veggies and dip.  Nope, can’t imagine that scenario ever showing up on TV.
  2. 7-11: The ad is for the 7Rewards program.  Buy 6 super-sized, brightly colored sugary drinks and the 7th one is free.  Use #CupHeads for more info.
  3. Burger King: A rooster is scrolling through photos of chickens, but the photo that grabs his full attention is of Chicken Fries.  What on earth are chicken fries?  Some GMO potato thing with chicken genes?  No, they’re chicken meat shaped like french fries, coated with breading and, obviously, fried.  About 300 calories/serving.

Meanwhile Burger King phased out Satisfries last summer.  Those were the somewhat healthier french fry option, reviewed here by the Walk Talk Nutrition RDs.  They had that unfortunate “healthy” label stuck to them, and in most peoples’ minds, healthy = bad tasting.  Makes me wonder how well Satisfies would have done if BK has created a fun and clever advertising campaign like the one for Chicken Fries.

Another good way to find out what people are really eating: visit the grocery store.  For example:

  • There is vastly more shelf space devoted to soft drinks (including sports drinks, which are in fact no better than soda pop) than to fresh fruit.
  • The freezer shelf space devoted to variations on frozen fried potatoes are 3 X as big as the frozen vegetables section.
  • There’s an entire aisle of nothing but chips.  Both sides of the aisle.

No surprise, a recent study of food purchases found that just over 60% of the calories bought at grocery stores were from highly processed foods like chips, cookies, white bread and prepared meals.  I’m surprised it was only 60%.

What’s my take on this?

I don’t believe food companies are forcing people to make poor food choices.   Food companies are giving them what they want to buy.  Lately, for the sake of good publicity, restaurants and food companies may offer token “healthier” items, but those take up a whole lot less space on menus and grocery shelves.  I’d love to see sales data on those items compared to the regular stuff.  I’m guessing it would be disappointing.

Los Angeles tried to enforce healthy food choices.  In 2007, Food Police types passed an ordinance banning fast food restaurants in a section of L.A. that was especially prone to obesity.  They were so sure that, with a shortage of local fast food outlets, people would magically start eating healthier food, and obesity would go away.  A recent study showed that the ban failed to accomplish anything whatsoever.  There was no significant impact on food choices or obesity.

Punitive, negative messages criticizing or restricting people’s food choices haven’t worked.  And nagging “eat-your-peas” messages about healthy food aren’t getting us anywhere either.  It would be nice if healthier whole foods could be marketed with fun and clever ads, but if there’s no money to be made, who would pay for that?

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