After decades of marketing research, we know packaging makes a big impact on whether or not consumers buy certain foods. But as a shopper, it can be tough to make healthy choices when added sugar is hidden under many names, and food labels can be confusing. “It’s important to understand marketing is a science used to persuade consumer choices,” explains Annamaria Louloudis MS, RDN.
That’s why it’s essential to be mindful of what’s being marketed, and just as importantly not marketed, on food packaging, says Pam Cureton, RD. “A trip down the grocery aisle can be confusing, misleading and even sabotage your plans to eat better.”
But if you learn a bit about the psychology behind how food packaging gets your attention — and what to look for if you’re prioritizing health or weight loss — it becomes easier to make informed decisions about what to stock up on.
Color psychology is big in food marketing. “Colors communicate different ideas,” explains Amy Goldsmith, a food marketing executive. Here’s what various colors are most often used to signify or induce, according to Goldsmith and Louloudis.
- Green: organic, natural, vegetarian, eco-friendly
- Blue: calm, fresh, associated with the Mediterranean diet
- Red: strong, urgent, associated with higher sales
- Yellow: appetite stimulant, associated with good mood
- Black and gold: luxury
When you’re in the grocery store, take a moment to notice how the various colors appeal to you and what thoughts you have surrounding these foods. You may notice you’re drawn to a specific color, even though it’s something you wouldn’t ordinarily purchase.
Next time you walk through the cereal aisle, take a look at what’s eye level for kids. Usually, it’ll be bright, sugary cereals with appealing characters on the boxes. That’s no accident: “We create buying behaviors at a young age, and we learn to associate colors and wording with certain feelings,” explains Amy Shapiro, MS, RD.
Often, healthier cereal products are usually grouped together toward the end of an aisle rather than getting prime real estate, adds Cali Estes, PhD, a psychologist and food addiction expert. This concept goes way beyond the breakfast aisle, though. “Bigger brands can also pay for better positioning throughout grocery stores, so their products are on eye-level for adults,” notes Estes.
Marketers use function and free-from claims to appeal to shoppers’ nutritional, ethical and environmental goals, says Goldsmith. A function claim puts a word like “vegan,” or “gluten-free” on the label. A free-from would be something like “non-GMO,” “no sugar,” or “no preservatives.”
These labels can help identify foods that fit your lifestyle, but they don’t always tell the whole story. “For example, the front of the label may promote ‘high in omega-3’s’ or ‘high-fiber,’ but it may also be high in unwanted ingredients such as trans fat or added sugar,” Cureton explains. “Other diet-related labels, for example, ‘gluten-free,’ keto-friendly,’ and ‘FODMAP-approved’ can help support individuals with special dietary restrictions, but do not necessarily benefit healthy consumers who are looking for better nutrition.”
These claims impact purchasing decisions, but they can also play a role in how much we ultimately eat of the foods we buy, says Richard Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD, an expert on food preferences, satiety and food choice influences. “If you label the same product, for example, an oatmeal raisin cookie, as healthy (high-fiber, rich in unsaturated oils, contains iron), people will eat more of it than if it is described as indulgent but less healthy (high in fat and sugar).” Especially for people trying to lose weight, that’s an important consideration.
Here are some of the most common ones and what they mean:
- Reduced fat: You might see this on peanut butter or dairy products, in particular, and less fat isn’t automatically a good thing. Peanut butter is a great example: “A typical reduced-fat peanut butter has 3 grams of added sugar per serving compared to 1 gram of natural sugar in a natural peanut butter, and twice the amount of salt,” says Louloudis. “You might save a few grams of fat, but you’re not saving calories since they’re about the same in both products. Regardless, the fat in peanut butter is mostly heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, so reducing fat and increasing sugar is going to make the ‘reduced-fat’ version the less healthy choice.”
- Gluten-free: People often associate gluten-free products with being healthier, and for people who have celiac disease or wheat allergies, they are. “But those without allergies or intolerances should pay more attention to the ingredient list,” says Louloudis. “Oftentimes, gluten-free products are made with refined tapioca flour and potato starch, which have no fiber and minimal nutrition benefits.”
- Organic: This is another one to look out for on packaged foods. “Just because something is organic, doesn’t make it inherently healthy,” Louloudis notes. For instance, organic cookies are still cookies.
- No hormones: The USDA prohibits hormone use in raising hogs or poultry, Louloudis says, so this is just a marketing term.
- Zero trans fat: For a product to have this label, it must contain less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving, per the FDA. So there could technically still be trans fats in these foods, Louloudis points out. It’s important to check the ingredient list for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which are fancy terms for trans fats.
“Quite simply, smart consumers look past the front of an exciting label, focusing instead on the nutritional information that’s on the back of the box or bag,” Cureton says. She recommends paying special attention to several factors, including the calorie count, added sugar and the percent daily value of any nutrients you’re especially concerned with. “Percent daily value can help you determine if a serving of the food is high or low in a nutrient,” she says. So if you’re looking for a product that’s high in fiber, you can see how much it provides based on a typical diet, and you have an easy reference point for comparison with other similar products.
This is another nutrition label area to home in on. “Sometimes small serving sizes are used to manipulate the nutrition information, whereas the amount we usually eat is a lot more,” Louloudis says. “For example, cereals or granolas usually have a serving size of 1/4–3/4 cup on a nutrition fact label, whereas the average person probably eats more than that in one serving.”
You’ve probably heard this advice before, and that’s because it’s generally a good guideline. “Foods on the perimeter of the store are mostly whole foods where labels really aren’t needed,” Shapiro explains. That means there’s less marketing overall to contend with.
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