#MUNIonThis: Countless brands are responding to the consumer demand for more healthful food options by “greenwashing”— slapping their products with labels that boast “organic”, “all natural”, “sugar-free”, and the like. Are these labels trustworthy or merely ploys for manipulative marketing?
Not everyone you know is leading a healthy lifestyle. Some are far from it. But, admit it— there is a deep-seated part of everyone that desperately wants to be.
I’m talking about this desire (whether it be hidden at the back, or pushed to the forefront of people’s minds) to make some kind of an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle— especially when it comes to food. It’s this very desire that affects our purchasing behaviors as consumers, and companies know this all too well.
Who We Are (As Told By What We Consume)
The way I see it, brands have a two-fold goal— to establish an identity for themselves and their product, and then to connect this to the identity of the consumers themselves. We purchase and consume not only to meet our needs but, more importantly, to construct our sense of self, the image of ourselves we want to project out to the world. Ergo, at the supermarket, we want food products that offer us “perks”— i.e. make us feel good about ourselves, show that we are looking out for our bodies, heck— even give us the impression that we are helping the environment. We desire to be conscious consumers.
The Parable of Organic Oreos
I took a Health Psychology course in my university and, as a lesson to not judge a book by its cover (or in this case, a food item by its label), my professor presented our class with two boxes of Oreos™. The first one had no airs about it— classic blue box. The second, however, was more yellow than blue, and in green script lettering were the words “organic”, “no artificial preservatives”, and “0g trans fat”. She then asked which of the two was a more healthful choice, and, predictably, the class leaned towards the latter. It was later revealed that, according to an article by The Washington Times, although the “organic Oreos™” were indeed made with organic ingredients, “A three-cookie serving still contains 7 grams of fat and 160 calories.” It was still junk food all the same.
Misleading “Greenwashed” Food Labels
Product packaging and food labeling— it’s something we consciously overlook but subconsciously pore over. Sometimes, we even go as far as to choose one grocery item over another because of the health claims slapped in big, bold letters across the label. Choosing products that have feel-good phrases like “organic”, “all natural”, and “fat free” printed clearly on their packaging often convince us we’re making a good, worthwhile choice. The National Audubon Society terms this phenomenon “greenwashing”.
So what if it costs a little bit more? Swayed by such alluring descriptors, we already feel like more conscious consumers just for opting to put the “healthier version” of this product in our shopping carts. And here’s the kicker— most people simply do this subconsciously!
A published paper on food packaging reads, “Food is very often purchased instinctively, without too much thought and processing. The purchase decision is made directly, in front of the shelf, when the customer is in contact with the product.”  Therefore, all these factors we weigh out about our food products whiz through our heads in the span of minutes, and in the short while it takes us to grab two boxes off the shelf and easily decide to go for the one that claims to be “all natural” over the one that doesn’t— we may have already been duped.
Now, these labels aren’t lies per se, but they can be wily in the way they mislead your presumptions about certain food products. According to an article on health.com, for instance, “all natural” simply means the so-labeled food “doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”. They can still be full of sodium or high fructose corn syrup. Something “all-natural”, therefore, can still be very unhealthy. Following suit, “sugar-free” food items could have just as many (or even more) calories than their regular counterpart, since calories can come from sources other than sugar anyway. The same goes for the “fat-free” label on food items that are still doped with sugar, meaning they may contain just the same amount of calories as their fat-full versions.
Call To Action: Be Savvy Consumers
See, to reiterate, not everyone you know is leading a healthy lifestyle, and yet, on some level, everyone subconsciously wants to be. That’s basically why we instinctively lean towards these healthful options. Yet, being an actual conscious consumer means more than merely relying on deceptively phrased food labels and healthful-seeming packaging to control your purchasing power.
So, the next time you’re strolling the aisles, try and do more than blindly accepting these labels and thinking you can check off your conscious-consumer’s-choice for the day. Strive to be more aware, seek solace in the fine print, and take a few minutes to compare regular versions to these “better versions”. Manufacturers and big companies may be manipulative but savvy consumers and eaters know the cardinal rule— you don’t buy everything you read.
 “Organic oreos join junk-food menu.” The Washington Times. LLC, 31 Mar. 2007. Web. 6 July 2015. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2007/mar/31/20070331-104812-1816r/?page=all.
 Schueller, Gretel. “The truth behind food labels.” Audubon: From the Magazine. National Audubon Society, Mar.-Apr. 2011. Web. 6 July 2015. https://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2011/the-truth-behind-food-labels.
 Arslanagić, Maja, Almir Peštek, and Selma Kadić-Maglajlić. “Perceptions of healthy food packaging information: do men and women perceive differently?.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 109 (2014): 78-82.
 Deza, Danny. “16 most misleading food labels.” Health.com. Time Inc. Lifestyle Group, n.d. Web. 06 July 2015. http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20599288.html.
Cami Ferreol (@camilleferreol) is a double major in both Psychology and Cultural Studies And Communication at Clark University, an executive team member of CAMP Philippines, and a freelance graphic designer. Peruse her creations here.