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Lies, damn lies and clean labels

22 February 2016  •  Author(s): David Taylor, Senior Scientist, NoWFOOD Research Development Centre, University of Chester

Food fads are nothing new and the latest one is the rise of the minimally processed, free from additives, clean label food. Consumers are looking more and more at ingredients lists to decide if that product is something they want to eat. The problem is, are the claims misleading and does the consumer know what they mean anyway?

Lies, damn lies and clean labels

Whenever anyone of us sets foot inside a supermarket we are subjected to some of the most compelling psychological techniques known to marketing. Over many years the supermarkets, along with the food manufacturers whose products fill their shelves, have developed and fine tuned store layout, product placement and package design to the minutest detail in order to entice the consumer and maximise sales1.

Some of the techniques employed are fairly obvious and, by now, well known to the customer. For instance we will all recognise the general layout of the aisles as they are more or less the same in every store you enter. You are immediately met with beautifully coloured fruit, next to the pre-packed sandwiches and fizzy drinks – perfectly placed for people who pop in to grab lunch. For staple foods like bread and popular products like alcohol you will have to walk to the far end of the store and pass all the special offers and cooking smells like rotisserie chickens – they hope you will feel hungry and buy something you did not intend to.

Other techniques employed are not so obvious but nonetheless scientifically deadly. For instance, Cornell Food and Brand Lab Researchers Aner Tal and Brian Wansink recognised that eye contact increases brand trust, so are you aware that the eyes on the faces of the cartoon characters on children’s cereal boxes look down at an angle of 9.76 degrees so they look directly at small children, while the faces on cereal boxes designed for adults look straight ahead2 . The height they are placed on the shelves means they make eye contact with their target consumer.

This is clever stuff, and of course it is perfectly legal, after all the consumer is not being misled, just willingly guided! However, other techniques have, and are being employed where it could be argued that regulations are being stretched and the consumer deceived. Do you remember a juice drink called ‘Sunny Delight’? It was a marketing success story of the 1990s and early 2000s3 . Children loved it and mums did not mind as it was a healthy orange juice drink – it must have been, after all it was placed in the chilled display unit with the other fresh juices. Not so, it was an entirely processed product full of colourings, flavouring, added sugar and thickener. Questions were asked of the director of the Asda brand, Penny Coates at the House of Commons Select Committee on Health about its positioning with other fruit juices to give an impression of it being healthy, which she conceded did not help4 . Soon after this, combined with a story of a young girl turning orange after drinking too much, sales slumped…

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