Why are food retailers still promoting damaging messages about nutrition?

Why are food retailers still promoting damaging messages about nutrition?

Recently Itsu faced backlash over the language they’ve chosen to tout what they describe as a light lunch, and what I would describe as a small plate of sadness.

NEW Zero Noodles
Zero carbs (amazing)
Zero calories (almost)
Full and filling (for sure)

The three salads range from 176 to 198 calories. You cannot call c.200 calories worth of noodles, vegetables, ANYTHING, a ‘light lunch’. They were half right, but I’d probably call it a light snack.

If, like me, the term ‘calorie free’ makes you raise an eyebrow, it’s probably worth mentioning that calorie free does not technically mean calorie free. ‘No more than 4 kcal per 100ml’ doesn’t read as well though, so advertising regulations will allow you to market these foods as calorie free instead. The noodles fall into that bracket, hence the name, and the rest of the calories are derived from a meagre amount of vegetables and chicken, salmon or vegetarian protein sources.

The response from Itsu has so far been disappointing. Although the sign reads ‘no carbs (amazing)’, the social media team responded to criticism by helpfully explaining that the carbs they were previously maligning are an essential part of a balanced diet. Well, no shit. So why peddle this nonsense? Could it be to capitalise on a widespread fear of an essential macronutrient in order to make money? Or could it be that they have worked out the smallest amount of food they can possibly sell for the highest price, knowing that they can only get away with it by calling it lunch?

In contrast, this year Tesco rolled out a fantastic campaign called Food Love Stories, highlighting the special role food plays in our lives. The adverts feature people lovingly holding plates of food, overlaid with simple captions encompassing the magic behind each meal. From Birdie’s ‘everybody welcome’ jerk chicken to Sunita’s ‘secret veg’ meatballs, the characters are immediately brought to life, and the campaign reminds us of the importance of the enjoyment of food, and how it can bring people together. One of my favourite stories is about Alice, who uses the ‘powerful language of cupcakes’ to say sorry when she can’t quite find the right words. Or the community café at Bo’ness Academy in Scotland, which receives a delivery of unsold food from its local Tesco through the Community Food Connection programme. The school uses the ingredients to make food for visitors to the café, while the kids are able to try out recipes, such as the one for ‘nothing wasted’ banana bread (which Tesco has been careful to describe as a treat). Teaching children to cook creatively and resourcefully will surely hold them in good stead for the future. Now imagine these same children seeing signs promoting carb and calorie avoidance.

So, there you have it. Two very different approaches to food marketing. With an enormous power to further negative dialogue, I believe that marketers have a duty to ensure they’re not helping to frame disordered relationships with food in a positive light by conflating them with health. Although Sadiq Khan pledged to ban ‘body shaming’ adverts from the tube, I think it is just as important to crack down on brands sending unhealthy messages about what we put in our bodies, as those telling us what they should look like (although clearly there is a correlation between the two). Replace the word ‘calories’ with ‘energy’ and suddenly you look eye-rollingly stupid handing over six quid for your zero energy salad. The good news is that it will probably fuel you for long enough to walk to Sainsbury’s to get the sandwich you should have bought in the first place.