Healthy eating, huh? We’ve all watched enough “The Biggest Loser” and genius “Today Tonight” investigative journalism to know that sugar and fat are BAD and psyllium husks and chia seeds are BRILLIANT.

And as such, we’re all now either gluten sensitive, lactose indifferent, paleo or carrot exclusive.

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Healthy food advertisements work so well because we see a better version of ourselves at the other side of the ad. One without the need for a stretch denim pant. One that doesn’t keep a special tissue in the pocket for the sweat beading upon our brow during a light walk.

The health food marketers’ message is subtle but emotionally strong. You could be better. We can help you be better. This is a powerful tool for getting people with often low self-esteem to buy your product.

Powerful fools with powerful tools. That’s how my Grandpa summed up any international conflict. In some ways, it applies here. In an industry that is so effective at delivering their version of the truth as gospel, and have people blindly lap it up, there is a fine line to tread when it comes to the marketing. And thanks to an often lax regulatory system, it appears you can get away with some pretty wild claims in order to flog of your little wonder tonic.

That’s not to say that everyone’s claims will go unchecked. There’s risk and reward for the marketers involved, and they’re going to continually push the envelope to try to maximise their campaign’s effectiveness. So what sort of dilemmas do healthy food advertisers face today?

Functional Foods

Before getting into the problems faced, it’s important to know the factors at play. The term “functional foods” is one that covers any food with a perceptible health benefit when eaten regularly (with other foods). Under the functional foods umbrella are four different categories:

  •         Conventional – Foods with natural health benefits
  •         Modified – Foods that have vitamins and minerals added to make them healthier
  •         Medical – Created to treat specific medical conditions
  •         Special Dietary – Foods formulated to exclude or include specific ingredients

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Legal Issues

In legal terms, when you’re talking healthy food advertisements it’s all about avoiding the unsubstantiated claim.

We’re no longer in the snake oil days. You can’t go around shouting that your new improved apple juice cures hip dysplasia, tooth rot and depression. It’s a matter of delivering any supposed benefit in as vague and over-arching way as possible.

Take a yoghurt manufacturer. We know most yoghurt is full of good bacteria. If the manufacturer wants to say “yoghurt supports the body’s natural defences”, all power to them. But if they choose to go with a more direct “yoghurt helps regulate the immune system”, and can’t find some concrete stuff to back themselves up, they might find themselves in a puddle of strife.

Ethical Issues

And where the legal framework isn’t built to deal with the goings-on of health food marketing, a more ethical dilemma arises. If you’re not going to get pulled up on spruiking a dodgy fact, why not?

While it can be tempting to pull a Peter Foster, particularly with page 3 girls on offer, marketers in the health food industry need to put some real effort into outlining exactly how much they’re happy to say about their product.

This can be particularly prevalent in the case of modified foods. Logic says that the healthy nutrient in a conventional health food should be able to be taken out and put in a different food, and work the same way. But sometimes this isn’t the case. Are you happy to take a gamble? Research is expensive…

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Special Dietary Issues

Stepping into the heaviest of health food mists, special dietary foods are a minefield of claims and counterclaims. With different diets cropping up every day, and different products trying to jump onto the fad the day after, it is a mess of marketers trying to out-shout each other.

Once again, the advertisements that root themselves in fact, or in reality say nothing much at all, are going to be the ones that keep out of trouble.

Let’s take the classic “low-carb” example. If you say your low-carb product is low-carb, terrific. The truth is the truth, and whatever the consumer builds around that nugget is up to them. If you use the terms “weight loss” or “healthy due to low carbs”, then you’re in strife for lack of unquestionable evidence.

And so, marketers have a balancing act. It’s up to them to dress their miracle product in a way that doesn’t make unproven claims, and isn’t so vague that the audience has no idea what’s going on.

Luckily they’re paid to.