AUDREY HAMILTON: Functional foods. Fortified foods. They sound good for you, but they may actually be sabotaging your healthy diet. In this episode, we talk with one psychologist who studies how companies market foods to health-conscious consumers and why we should all by wary of what they tell us about their products.
Lara Spiteri-Cornish is a marketing and advertising professor at Coventry University in the United Kingdom. She studies how foods are marketed to consumers and how that affects our decisions about what to eat. Welcome, Dr. Spiteri-Cornish.
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
AUDREY HAMILTON: First of all, what is a functional food?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: Okay. So a functional food basically is any food that has been fortified in some way. Now what that means is they have added vitamins or minerals to food over and above of what it actually is. It’s very, very common. So, if you have corn flakes and it’s basically fortified with Vitamin A that is actually a functional food. Or if you have bread and in the bread they say it’s fortified with omega-3 that is also a functional food. So we find them everywhere on the shelves in our supermarkets. AUDREY HAMILTON: Would you say that functional foods are actually more of a marketing tool? Do they influence what people decide to eat based on the fortification of these foods?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: Yes. I want to just take you a step back and say that actually, most foods are marketing tools. So ever since industrialization has happened and foods have been processed, marketers have done a lot of research into our tastes, into our desires of food. So, you know, they use a lot of processes to give us the foods we actually love. That’s why sometimes we can’t stop eating. And on top of that, they make them more and more convenient. Now, functional foods basically have arrived as a result of the fact that they noticed that consumers have paid more and more attention to health. And this understanding that health is related to food. So, marketers have immediately jumped on this and decided to say we are going to offer foods that are actually also going to offer some health benefits. So functional foods, in that case, are a very, very powerful marketing tool because marketers use them to offer people, “look, you are afraid, you know you might get sick if you eat the wrong foods. So buy these foods and these foods will actually give you all the nutrients you need, and they will actually make you healthy.” And people do believe in that. So yes, they’re a very, very powerful marketing tool.
AUDREY HAMILTON: What does your research tell us about the actual nutritional value of functional foods? Can they be good for you?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: Well, there are two types of functional foods. And I’ve done some research about this and I’ve asked a lot of people about how they consume functional foods. But essentially, even when talking to nutritionists, what they say is that there are nutritional-rich functional foods. These are the foods that have actually been scientifically proven to be good for you. And, there’s not that many, you’d be surprised. But, for example, cholesterol-lowering spread has actually been proven it does really lower cholesterol. And some of the pro-biotic yogurts or pro-biotic drinks have been proven to help. But unfortunately, there are the nutritionally poor functioning foods. Now these foods usually are even a bit like junk foods, I say, but then they add minerals and vitamins to them. So you can have, for example, a cereal bar that has eight percent of your fiber needs, which makes it a functional food. But the reality is very high in calories, high in fat, high in sugar, high in salt. The same thing with many cereals. So, a common cereal, at least in the UK, is Cocoa Pops, for example, for children. And, you know, parents buy it because it’s very chocolaty. But it also has added fiber, added folic acid and other vitamins and minerals. But if you look at the amount of sugar that there is in the cereal, it makes it very, very unhealthy. There are some good, but I think there is 80 percent of functional foods that aren’t really as healthy as people think.
AUDREY HAMILTON: So when can these foods be good for you?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: So, it’s important to look at the labels because even the nutritionally poor functioning foods, you know, sometimes they’re OK because they do have nutrients; they have vitamins; they have minerals; they have fiber. But, what is really important is you can’t use these foods instead of something a lot healthier. So what I found in my research is I have a lot of people who really don’t like fruits and really don’t like vegetables, but they’re aware that they’re missing out on fiber and minerals and vitamins. So many of them strangely enough, instead of buying the fruits and vegetables, they buy functional foods because they think they’ll get the fiber from there or the vitamins from there. But the reality is people need to understand that the source of nutrients is as important as the nutrients itself. The fiber you get from a chocolate cereal bar is not the same as the fiber you get from broccoli or any other fruit and vegetable. So yes, it’s OK if overall, you know, you have a nice good diet full of fruits and vegetables and lean meats and you add the cereal bar or a fortified cereal. But, you can’t use it to substitute, you know, really good, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
AUDREY HAMILTON: So no easy way.
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: There’s really no absolutely no easy way. And the reality is, they’re so popular because supermarkets have told us that the easy way is the right way and, you know, we’re lazy as human beings. And, that’s OK. I mean, we work really hard. We have long hours. So, we want a diet which is easier, but is also good and it’s also healthy. We want everything. And the reality is, you have to make sacrifices and, you know, you have to make sure that you make the right decisions and that usually requires work and effort.
AUDREY HAMILTON: There seems to be a lack of consensus among marketers in how to advertise healthy foods to consumers. What is the most important information about the food you buy when you’re trying to maintain a healthy diet?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: It is a very, very big business and you know, if you read work about how supermarkets work, you can see that they put a lot of thought into trying to make us believe that this is really, really healthy and that’s where you need to go, because obviously, supermarkets are a business and they’re there to make money, not make us healthier. So it’s up to us as consumers to be smart about our decisions, choose real foods, actual foods, not processed foods. Look at the labels. You need to choose foods that have very few ingredients. When ingredients start to get into 10, 20 ingredients, there’s a problem. And the reality is the majority of those ingredients will be additives and chemicals.
AUDREY HAMILTON: So, this is a question a lot of people might want to ask you. If I want to lose weight, what will be the most likely outcome of reaching for convenience foods? LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin, really. It’s just a question that with convenience foods, one, you’re not going to lose weight because of all the chemicals and additives. There has been recent research that shows if you drink diet soda, you’re still more likely to put on weight than if you drink water. And the reason is that the chemicals, like Aspartame or other sweeteners in the diet soda, they make your stomach want food. So your stomach is saying OK, I can sense that this is something sweet, whereas the food, so then it makes you eat a lot more afterwards. So even if you try to eat diet foods, first of all, you are still going to put on weight. Secondly, keep in mind that with diet foods, the reality is for them to remove the fat they have to add something else and usually that is going to be sugar. So most convenient foods, you can’t cheat, even if you go for the diet versions. They’re low in nutrients, they’re full of chemicals. They’re not good for you. They leave you undernourished and they leave you fat.
AUDREY HAMILTON: I’ve also heard that people who, you know, eat what they think are healthy foods like what you’re talking about, functional foods are also, well, “I ate healthy today. I had that healthy cereal bar. I can splurge at dinner.” They compensate. They think they already made a sacrifice. Is that something you’ve found in your research? LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: I found a lot in two different ways. One, how you said. And two, as in you go and you splurge and you have Indian or Chinese and you get drunk and then the next day you have a functional food to compensate. The reality is it doesn’t work like that. It works day by day. So if in this particular day you have really eaten poorly, you can’t just compensate by eating functional foods. You can try to compensate by eating fruits and vegetables but even that doesn’t really compensate let alone if you just have a functional food because these foods, yes, they can be a nice addition to your diet, but they shouldn’t compensate for bad eating ever.
AUDREY HAMILTON: How important is psychology in helping people understand how they eat and what they eat?
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: Right. So psychology is actually vital and the reason is, because it is as a science with all the processes that we as consumers go through in terms of the food we consume. So, let me give you just an example. If you’re eating chocolate because you are bored or because you’re lonely or you’ve had a hard day at work, psychology will tell you that this has to do with your mood and trying to make sure that you regulate your mood. So it studies why you behave in a certain way.
It also tells us that if you, for example, eat badly, not because you want to eat badly but because you feel “I don’t have the willpower to eat well,” psychology tells us this has to do with your self-efficacy, with your belief in yourself and your ability to change your eating habits. So basically, with psychology, it tracks us from the beginning. How we choose the foods that we choose. What we choose. Why we choose them. How we eat it. And the role that food plays in our life. So for some people, food is just fuel. For other people, food means love. And again psychology, there’s a lot of research that tries to understand okay why is it that food is actually is equated with love and how does it deal with the way we were brought up and our families and our culture. So, in terms of psychology, basically, it deals with every single step from how we think about food and what types of food we think about ‘til the process in which we are actually sitting down and consuming the food. So as a science, it’s the best possible way that we have to explain, you know, the position that food holds in our lives.
AUDREY HAMILTON: Great. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Spiteri-Cornish.
LARA SPITERI-CORNISH: You’re very welcome.
AUDREY HAMILTON: And thank you for listening. Please visit our website to listen to more episodes. I’m Audrey Hamilton with the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology.”