Staff Writer

Every time you are in the grocery store, you are being manipulated.

That was the message of the presentation “Deceptively Unhealthy Foods — How the Food Industry Psychologically Manipulates the Public to Spend More and Eat Worse.” Allison Kiefner-Burmeister, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Findlay, gave the talk at 50 North on Wednesday.

Kiefner-Burmeister is a developmental psychologist specializing in child development. So, she said, a lot of her examples of “deceptively unhealthy foods” are foods that parents would buy for their children, but the information is relevant to anyone who purchases, or eats, food.

Kiefner-Burmeister said it can be hard to say if a food is healthy for you or not — with a banana, the answer is clearly yes, but others are less clear-cut. She chose sugar as an example of an unhealthy food because it is “uncomplicated” — no one needs as much sugar as can be found in many of her examples.

She defined a “deceptively unhealthy” food as one that is high in sugar, fat or salt; low in micronutrients; and marketed as being healthy. For example, if the food industry has labeled the item with “This has fruit in it!,” consumers might be deceived into thinking it’s good for them.

Kiefner-Burmeister showed the attendees a picture of the label of Welch’s fruit snacks. She noted that the front of the label includes the word “fruit” in four places. And, she said, the package says the food inside is gluten-free — but of course fruit snacks contain no wheat. It’s like saying “Now made without formaldehyde!” she said.

The fruit snacks label also notes that the snacks contain 100% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C. “When’s the last time you saw someone get scurvy?” Kiefner-Burmeister asked in reference to this claim.

Fruit is, indeed, the first listed ingredient, as the Welch’s label points out. But the next two ingredients are corn syrup and sugar — which means if you add these two together, there is more sugar than there is fruit in the snacks, Kiefner-Burmeister said.

Fruit snacks are what led her to research this topic. A friend had told her young child not to eat gummy bears, but to eat fruit snacks instead. Kiefner-Burmeister started surveying people to ask whether they thought of particular foods as healthy — defining healthy as “You should eat them a lot” — and found that many people do think fruit snacks support children’s health.

She said the product is marketed as “It’s a fruit, therefore it is good for you.” But Swedish Fish — generally recognized as a candy — are the “exact equivalent” of fruit snacks.

Decades ago, Kiefner-Burmeister said, sugary cereals were marketed as exactly that. Ads would say that the product is sugary, and therefore children would likely love it. Back then we didn’t have lots of high fructose corn syrup in everything, she said.

She said when she was young she ate Sugar Smacks, now called “Honey Smacks.” The first four ingredients listed are sugar, wheat, dextrose and honey. While honey does have some antioxidants, our body processes it like sugar, and dextrose is also a sugar. The package notes that the cereal includes vitamin C.

Kiefner-Burmeister said everyone knows they need vitamin C, but that doesn’t mean you need it as a supplement. One clementine tangerine contains a child’s daily vitamin C needs, she said, and just one slice of a red bell pepper would also be sufficient. A balanced, healthy diet should give you nearly all the vitamins you need, she said.

Another example of something assumed to be healthy is dried cranberries. Kiefner-Burmeister said parents may assume Craisins are better than, say, potato chips because they’re a fruit. But cranberries are too tart to eat plain and raw, so a lot of sugar is added. She said a half-cup of cranberries contains 58 grams of sugar. That’s 14 teaspoons. And 72.5% is added cane sugar.

She said sports drinks are marketed as replacing electrolytes, which means chemicals like potassium and sodium. Certain high-powered athletes do benefit from sports drinks, but most people do not need them, she said.

A 20-ounce Gatorade has 34 grams of sugar, whereas a full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar has 24 grams. But the chocolate, because it contains milk, also has some protein, vitamin D and calcium in it, she said.

She said manufacturers can use terms like “wholesome,” “nutritious” and “natural” at will, with no rules as to what they mean. However, research finds people assume something has 17% fewer calories if the word “natural” is used.

And other terms do have meanings that are regulated, but they still get misinterpreted. To be labeled “organic,” for example, means that a food is grown without pesticides, or that appropriate animal husbandry is used — but people assume that means the food is higher in fiber and lower in fat, which isn’t necessarily true. Kiefner-Burmeister shared a picture of an organic type of fruit snacks. It’s typical that images like trees are used on the labels, to make people think of nature, she said.

Or, she said, the labels are matte rather than shiny, because people think it’s more natural. She cited as an example Clif bars, which her students like to eat. “They’re just candy bars that have oats in them,” she said.

And another type of granola bar was labeled as “100% natural oats.” But, she said, what is an “unnatural” oat?

“This is the entire food industry,” Kiefner-Burmeister said.

She said the United States is becoming heavier, and Type 2 diabetes is found even among children, which wasn’t the case before. “It’s not willpower,” but instead how the food industry is “damaging the health of everyone in the country,” she said, adding that we are continually being manipulated when we shop for food.

“We’re just being lied to,” she said.

So what do we do about it? “Make our own foods. Understand what’s actually going into them.” If you yourself put many cups of sugar into something, you are aware you are doing so.

And she pointed out that “we’re not against eating treats.” Candy and ice cream are fine in moderation. The difference is that you know that these things are unhealthy, so you will eat a little, as a treat, whereas if you think what you are eating is healthy you will consume too much.

Someone asked if there was an organized nationwide program to educate people on these issues. Kiefner-Burmeister replied that a lot of educational public health programs do exist, but not on that large a scale.

Another attendee asked about artificial sweeteners. Kiefner-Burmeister said in the 1960s and ’70s, when early artificial sweeteners were being tested on rats, they did cause cancer — but the researchers had fed the rats so much it was as if a human ate a few pounds of sweetener every day for years. Also, manufacturers have since changed the formula to make these sweeteners.

She said sugar will kill you much more quickly than artificial sweeteners — but it’s still not a good idea to eat or drink a lot of them, as it will change your palate so “you almost get addicted to the high level of sweet.” She said having a little sweetener in your tea or coffee is fine, but consuming lots of sweeteners means you’ll no longer find things like strawberries or baby carrots sweet.

Kiefner-Burmeister is co-author, with Jake Burmeister, of a paper on the topic of deceptively unhealthy foods which will be published soon in the Journal of Health Psychology.

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