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4 sneaky food packaging tricks to watch out for

Here's how food manufacturers use package design to convince consumers that an item is healthy.

People who are unhealthy because of a poor diet are often judged for their food choices, but maybe we should be putting more blame on the food industry rather than the consumers. First of all, there is the evil-villain creation of irresistible food known in the industry as hyper-palatable; food with a “mix of ingredients apt to light up people’s brain-reward neural circuitry and overpower mechanisms that are supposed to signal when we’ve had enough to eat.”

Then there's the insidious marketing; by some estimates, $10 billion a year is spent on marketing food and beverages to American kids alone. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids see up to 6,100 televised ads a year, the majority of those being for candy and snacks, cereal, and fast food.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have sly ways of making shoppers buy more food; and even restaurants use color and lighting to make us more hungry.

And of course, there are the tricky labels which lure us with deceptive language – used on everything from meat, dairy + eggs to refined grains and added sugar, to name just a few.

But we can drill down further and see that even in the packaging design alone, we are being manipulated. This may be obvious in something like kids' cereal, but it's very sneaky when it comes to healthy food. I have been noticing this more and more, and appreciated Ellie Krieger's summary of such for The Washington Post. Here's what to watch out for:

1. Tall, skinny containers

I fall for the tall skinny cans every time – and now I know they have my number! Researchers have found that “food in taller packages is perceived as having fewer calories than food in wider packages.” Man, we can be such simple animals sometimes. In addition, Krieger points to a study that concludes, “packages resembling slim humanoid shapes lead to foods being evaluated as healthier, especially with female consumers whose bodily characteristics mark them as being not thin.” So for example, drink bottles with a cinched middle or waste, like a female figure.

2. Bucolic, wholesome images

While there are probably some fine products that include images of farms, fields, and wholesome foods on their labels, there are plenty of foods boasting those images that may have nothing to do with farms, fields, and wholesome food. I am always amazed by this obvious “health-washing” (there may be a better word there, but you know what I mean). Krieger notes:

“As I browsed the grocery store recently, I saw pictures of whole wheat still in its husk on boxes of crackers made only with refined flour; sketches of garden leaves on bags of coconut sugar, and prominent images of ripe whole fruit and vegetables on snack bars and puffs that contain more sugar than produce on the ingredient list, and the produce was in powdered form at that. Pictures on packages can be powerful unconscious cues, connoting unprocessed, farm-fresh, natural foods that are flush with healthful properties. Very often the ingredient list tells a different story.”

3. Soft colors

While kids' cereal packaging tends towards vivid, saturated hues, designers opt for muted colors in packaging to suggest healthy food; research shows that we link paler colors to healthier products, while we associate brighter colors with bigger and perhaps artificially-enhanced flavors. Color plays a huge role in how we perceive food; from restaurant walls, to plates, and yes, packaging. There is even a study that found a candy bar with a green nutrition label was perceived as healthier than one with a red label, even though the labels had the exact same ingredients! Simple animals, we are, simple animals.

4. Brown paper packaging

Recently I saw that a junk food product I have seen all my life had received a makeover and now wears a kraft-paper colored package, as if it were now made of recycled or natural paper, even though it otherwise looked and felt exactly like the old material. Krieger notes that “packaging material considered to be eco-friendly, such as glass or brown cardboard or paper, can lead us to believe the food inside is better too — higher quality, more sustainably produced and healthier.” And with that in mind, knowing that people will pay a premium for eco-friendly and/or healthier products, manufacturers are leveraging that desire and rebranding old products for new appeal.

So, see what I mean? Even for people striving to eat healthier foods, unless a shopper is very careful and knows that manipulation is rampant, the decks are stacked.

One thing we can do is to vote for legislators who are not afraid of a little regulation, and who support good nutrition. But if the lawmakers and food manufacturers don't have our backs, it's up to us as consumers to make the best choices we can. If you find yourself magnetically drawn to a healthy-looking product, shake yourself out of that trance and check the labels! This isn't to say that healthy food doesn't come packaged in similar ways, but rather, be wary of the imposters.

For more, see related stories below.

Here's how food manufacturers use package design to convince consumers that an item is healthy.