Fancy words and flashy packaging grab a consumer’s immediate attention at the supermarket. In a health-conscious world today, the presence of luring words such as ‘high in fiber’, ‘low in sodium’ and ‘sugar-free’ create magic among buyers as many individuals these days follow a customized food chart which helps them stay within their recommended calorie intake levels. There is more to food packaging than simply focusing on it as a means to hold a product. The history of packaging goes eons back where humans preserved their food in containers they found in nature (such as coconut shells, leaves, logs etc.). We have evolved a long way since its origin where today the food items are wrapped in different materials in different ways to preserve the food within. What started as a means to be helpful for our busy lifestyle, extend shelf life and prevent food contamination has now started fulfilling certain other objectives- food packaging has evolved as a marketing strategy to attract as many buyers as possible.
A couple of years back we had a research result that encouraged consumers that the labels on front of food packaging can enable healthier choices as these labels included values for energy, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt. Some even include a logo indicating that the food is a healthy choice. While researchers concluded that the front of package food labelling is an important tool in helping consumers to make healthier choices and also a reminder to the food industry to manufacture healthy products maybe the same has backfired!
Be Safe than Sorry
We love to pull a cart along the plush supermarket aisles picking out several things that attracts us rather than those that meet our requirements. But we can also put it this way-the food packaging industry tries to dodge the user’s attention by alluring him/her with superficial information and health. Right from the print design, color and similar elements to bottle shape, packaging size and likewise all of these influence the decision-making capability of the user greatly. Food labelling helps us in making informed decisions about our food choices when we have knowledge about reading these labels. Many of these packages state terms such as ‘low fat’ or ‘sugar-free’ or ‘low sodium’ that confuses the user unless he/she knows how much is low enough. Besides, the health messages of package designs depend completely on the manufacturer. The design techniques that must enable the user to make informed choices about selecting a product are present in misleading ways these days and the user is more commonly duped than directed towards good health.
Consumers these days are conscious about the food they eat and the nutrients present in them but sadly most of them are unable to find reliable nutrition information that can help them in making informed purchasing decisions. Authentic study results show that almost 50% consumers follow a specific diet plan and 75% avoid certain ingredients when they shop around for food products. But 67% complain that its challenging to guess the nutrient content of the food product by looking at the package label while 48% reveal that they don’t find themselves informed enough about the food product even after reading the label (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/study-consumers-seek-healthy-lifestyles-but-food-packaging-makes-it-difficult-300430044.html).
The advent of obesity and overweight has brought in radical changes in our thoughts. Many choose to eat or drink only after ensuring the presence of nutrients in their food and this compels CPG brands (consumer packaged goods) to provide the user with complete and reliable product information that can help him/her make choices with 100% clarity. To ensure this, the Food and Drug Administration (U.S.A) has proposed the introduction of an agency-approved icon that bluntly shows that the food packaging is ‘healthy’ indeed (https://psmag.com/news/why-the-fda-is-considering-a-healthy-icon-for-food-packaging).
Bright Images that Nullify our Insight in their Health
Looks can be deceptive but it’s the same looks that also interest the consumers in the first place and lure them into buying foods that don’t serve their purpose. Traditional brands were designed in a simple way that delivered the required message, for instance, a bright-red tomato says tomato sauce. But now, the trend has moved on to display more beautiful, colorful and imaginative artworks on everything right from eggs and coffee to dhal and spices with the sole outlook of providing a pleasurable shopping experience to consumers. The user is often tricked into buying many products due to the colorful images and the bright icons.
Many products today contain images of fields, farms, grains and produce that are bright and attractive. Packaged biscuits display grain icon which the human mind immediately associates with whole wheat, energy bars show colorful fruits such as berries and bananas or sketches of garden leaves on bags of coconut sugar create the hype of natural foods that are healthy but inside each package are biscuits full of refined flour, energy bars overloaded with sugar or some snack that does contain unjustifiable amounts of sodium and fat.
There are manufacturers who package foods in dull, brown colors that stand for natural and eco-friendly aspects and the consumer immediately associates the food inside too to be healthy and sustainable. Muted colors are another gimmick used by food manufacturers to portray the impression that the food is healthful and natural-that’s because research shows that individuals often associate bright colors with artificial flavoring and paler colors with healthier products. Many of the healthy terms are magnified to unreasonable proportions which once again deceive the user.
So, if you really want to choose a healthy product ignore the attractive food packaging aspects and look into the nutrition facts panel of the packaging. Food manufacturers must also stop proclaiming their food products to be the best in town with over-ambitious packaging terms, colors and icons that fail to convey the true nutrition aspect of the food inside the package.
How Food Companies Use Packaging to Fool You Into Thinking an Item is Healthful: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/how-food-companies-use-packaging-to-fool-you-into-thinking-an-item-is-healthful/2019/10/23/40304d84-e9d4-11e9-9c6d-436a0df4f31d_story.html
10 Tips for Understanding Food Labels: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/sugar-salt-and-fat/10-tips-for-understanding-food-labels
Watch Out for Misleading Food Packaging Claims: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/misleading-food-packaging-claims/
Unwrapped: The Subtle Joys of Food Packaging: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/marks-spencer-whole-foods-packaging-design/400340/
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.