The Deceptive Marketing Practices Of Big Food

It is not just in adults – we now have obese teenagers and obese children. We even have obese infants. What has brought about such an abrupt change in our world’s health? What has made the average reference point for American culture a diseased, sick person? We didn’t used to be like this. In fact, even 60 years ago, we were a relatively healthy nation (okay – except for the smoking).

The human body has changed very little – if at all – in this time frame. So what has changed? Well, for starters, our environment has changed almost completely. What were once open spaces, filled with room to run, play and lounge – are now houses, roads, shopping malls, or parking lots. We have rapidly expanded our population as well. We have improved our medical field – what was once fatal conditions is now treatable. But that means that we have more people that are living longer – which puts more of a strain on our economy, especially considering healthcare costs.

We are now spending nearly a quarter of our gross domestic product on healthcare, and obesity is a major contribution to this cost. This is an unprecedented amount. But is the simple lack of room to run and play the reason why we’re so fat? Certainly a sedentary lifestyle is part of the problem. No question there, but it is not as much of a factor as most people want to believe.

So what else has changed? Well, our food has changed. What were once high levels of minerals like iron and zinc in crops have diminished. And yes, this even includes organic vegetables. So if you’re eating 100 calories of broccoli today, you’re not getting the same amount of nutrition as you were 50 years ago. This is astounding, and important to note, as we move towards a world population nearing 8 billion people. This is not a problem that can be ignored nor is it one with an easy fix. We need to all focus on this problem and work to find a solution.

Continually diminishing the nutrients found in our crops is one surefire way to make sure we are all deficient in important vitamins and minerals, and thereby more likely to become sick. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We are sleeping less than ever, without a doubt. This is a much bigger contributor to poor health and obesity than most people realize. The average American does not get nearly enough sleep, which has been linked to many ailments, but “earlier death” is probably going to be the one you care about the most.

Another factor in our poor health? Too much caffeine and too much sugar. These crutches for energy do not do your body any favors in the long term. As the average intake levels of these substances increases, and the age of their initial use continually lowers, many college-aged kids and high school students are learning just how much of an effect these seemingly innocuous substances can have on their health.

But perhaps the biggest change of all, which has caused our obesity and poor health problems, is the way food is marketed. The psychology of food and eating has changed so quickly, so drastically, that most of us have been swept up in its whirlwind. Just how many people do you know that don’t have a single health problem? Not that many, I’d bet. The biggest reason why this has occurred is both aggressive marketing and taking advantage of every human’s intrinsic need for food and drink.

I want you to perform this simple exercise the next time you drive to work. Without crashing your car, count just how many billboards for food or drink that you see. I would bet that 99% of those billboards are advertisements for junk food, soda, and/or fast food. Now add to this total, the number of fast food restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, coffee shops, pizza places, vending machines, and other establishments, which sell food, that you see in a day.

But we’re not done yet. Count how many advertisements you see on television, on the internet, on the radio, and in magazines which mention food – even health food or weight loss products. There are even more avenues which marketers have entrenched themselves in (remember when we didn’t used to pay for bottles of water?) but for ease of illustration I will stop your count here. This is a staggering amount of exposure to an element of human life that is only truly needed as fuel, not pleasure.

But in our modern, overcrowded, overstimulated, breakneck pace world, food marketers and producers take full advantage of the human brain. More importantly, they pinpoint the weakest points of the brain and set their sights on them like a rabid dog. Take soda, for example. It contains no nutritional value (literally zero) and yet I bet half of your earlier count consisted of soda advertisements.

Without taking any psychology courses, do you think the omnipresence of soda ads, billboards and radio jingles makes us more likely to drink soda? Exactly. This may seem overly simplistic, but we annually consumed only 12 bottles of soda per person in 1900. Compare that with the 190 bottles per person we consumed in the 1950s. The number has risen (substantially) since then. Remember – soda contains NO nutrients.

This is just one example that shows just how hawkish and predatory the food industry is, when it comes to manipulating the psyche of consumers. They added more salt and more caffeine to New Coke in the 1980s. This is but one small example of the obvious goal of the food industry: dollars, not your health. Speaking of developments in the beverage world – lets examine just how much serving and product sizes have increased. Soda products were typically served in 12 oz. cans when I was a child. This size had already been doubled since the initial 6 oz. bottle was first introduced.

Now the “standard” product size is 20 oz. This is now more than 3 times the appropriate size of a product which is pure, liquid sugar. For the sake of brevity, I won’t mention the 40 oz. big drinks that are also commonplace. Human beings haven’t changed their physiology since soda was introduced. But Big Food sure has increased their product sizes. The psychology of sugar and caffeine is blatantly clear – addictive, gives a short burst of pleasure, and then leaves the consumer craving more. And food companies take full advantage of this. One big soda brand even says “open happiness” in regards to their product.

These foods give us a reward – quite literally – in our brain. The same effect is not seen when eating kale or spinach. Because of this, we now equate certain foods with happy moments. But the trouble lies in the fact that – all too often – the foods we equate with happy memories are filled with excess sugar and/or empty calories. Birthday cake, pies for holiday events, pizza with college friends. And then there is caffeine. Coffee with friends, espresso for studying, tea time. Have you noticed the pattern here yet?

One of the best ways to combat the modern obesogenic environment, is to remove yourself from advertisements as much as possible. Keep healthier friends, maximize activity and exercise time, make new memories with healthy foods, and teach your children that food is for fuel and health – not some sort of massive pleasure experience. Turn off the TV and read a book instead. We all pay for the countries’ obesity – and we’ll be paying a lot more if our obesity levels increase.

If you are already healthy and aware and still looking to do more, work on getting a soda tax passed in your town. Only one has been passed so far, despite many other efforts. Soda companies pay big bucks to try and avoid these sorts of laws from passing, but remember – they only want to make money, not to make the world a healthier place. In fact, the more unhealthy we get, the more they profit.

This article originally appeared on PaleoHacks.