Lucky enough to be born between the early 1980s and 2000? Whether or not you want to think of yourself as a “millennial,” food marketers have their eyes on you.
Roughly a quarter of Americans fit the generation’s definition, which means a combined $200 billion in annual buying power, Forbes reported last year. Cue the industry reports full of strategies for “how nutrition could be used to target the Millennial generation” and how food brands “can tap into the millennial mindset.”
Here are seven mischievous ways that food companies market to you—and how to sort through their claims.
1. Make it sound oh-so natural.
Companies know that many millennials are demanding more natural foods. And that’s easy to deliver when “natural” labels don’t mean much. Federal rules for “natural” don’t permit the use of artificial ingredients or added colors. In the case of meat, chicken, and eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also requires that the foods be “minimally processed.”
But there are plenty of other ways to make a food sound natural, even when most people won’t consider it natural. Marketers call foods “wholesome,” “simply,” and “real” or tout “no artificial flavors” and “no high-fructose corn syrup”—even if the foods contain artificial sweeteners or have been (in the case of meat) injected with salty broth. And any of those foods may be no more nutritious than their competitors.
Take Nabisco Good Thins for example. “No artificial colors. No artificial flavors. No cholesterol. No partially hydrogenated oils. No high-fructose corn syrup.” That’s what makes Good Thins so good, says the box.
But Original Triscuits, Multigrain Wheat Thins, and plenty of others could make those same “No…” claims. (Heck. So could Lay’s Classic Potato Chips.) And their labels are honest, unlike many of Good Thins’. For instance, “The Potato One” Sweet Potato variety has more white potato flour and even cornstarch than sweet potato powder, and “The Chickpea One” Garlic & Herb has more white flour and oil than chickpea powder.
Bottom line: Use the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to check if a food lives up to its claims. See an ingredient you don’t recognize? The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), NutritionAction.com’s publisher, rates the safety of all major food additives in Chemical Cuisine.
2. Claim it has no added hormones.
Market-watchers say “hormone-free” is a selling point. (Of course, no meat is hormone-free—all animals produce hormones!) But maybe that selling point is why the ad for Oscar Mayer Natural Slow Roasted Turkey Breast says, “Some things are full of hormones. We’re not.”
But hold on! Did you notice the teeny-tiny print in the ad? “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry,” the ad says. So hormones are not allowed to be administered to any turkey. Ditto for chicken and pork.
And when it comes to how food is produced, it’s not just about hormones. Companies have heard that millennials “feel particularly connected to brands that keep sustainability and social responsibility top-of-mind.” And who wouldn’t want to buy food produced with more sustainable or responsible methods?
But it also means that labels now sport a dizzying array of claims, from cage-free to free-range, grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised, etc. And not all of those claims mean what you may think they do.
3. Promise “sustained energy.”
Millennialmarketing.com tells food companies that products should showcase foods’ benefits. A prime target, according to those marketing tips? “Sustained energy” that can come from cookies like belVita’s Breakfast Biscuits. “4 hours of nutritious steady energy,” says belVita Breakfast Biscuits. Other companies play the same game. “Helps keep you going,” says Quaker Breakfast Flats. “Long-lasting energy,” says Nature Valley Biscuits.
Do companies have evidence that their biscuits (cookies) can keep your energy level up longer than other foods? If they do, it hasn’t been published. Odds are, they’re banking on the idea that we break down and absorb whole grains like oats (belVita calls them “slow-release carbs”) more slowly than sugar or refined grains. That keeps blood sugar steadier (at least compared to Frosted Flakes or Oreos), but it’s no guarantee that the biscuits will keep you energetic.
Bottom line: Don’t assume that a whole-grain cookie makes a healthy breakfast.
4. Make it a mash-up.
Market research firms are advising companies to create the “newest crazy-mixed-up food or beverage” like Cronuts, ramen burgers, or even nacho lasagna. They say it’s because millennials are “thrill-seeking foodies.” Maybe that’s what some of America’s restaurant chains were thinking when they created some of the unhealthiest restaurant meals, some of which landed on CSPI’s annual Xtreme Eating Awards list of nine “dishonorees.”
Take drive-in chain Sonic’s “Candy Slushes” for example. Last year, USA Today reported that these sugary slushes mixed with candy pieces were a “a direct attempt to appeal to Millennials” and a “wild success.” The Sonic Route 44 Grape Slush with Rainbow Candy adds 370 calories’ worth of candy to a 44-ounce grape-flavored sugar slurry. The tab? 970 calories. That’s 1¼ cups of pure sugar—as much sugar as three XL (40 oz.) 7-Eleven Fanta Wild Cherry Slurpees. That earned Sonic recognition as one of our Xtreme Eating “winners.”
And earlier this year, perennial Xtreme Eating “winner” The Cheesecake Factory introduced a mash-up of fried chicken & waffles and Eggs Benedict. That dish tops a day’s worth of calories (2,580), four days’ worth of saturated fat (86 grams), and two days’ worth of sodium (3,390 mg), plus about 15 teaspoons of refined sugar.
Bottom line: Mash-ups like these extreme foods may sound “interesting,” but can mean even more calories than usual if you’re dining out. Because most chain restaurants don’t list calories on their menus and menu boards yet, be prepared. Check chains’ websites to see if the Nutrition Facts and ingredients are listed.
5. Label it non-GMO.
Millennials are more likely to buy products free of GMOs, articles say. But when you see a food with a “No GMO” label, know that most foods that allegedly contain GMOs actually don’t have any genetically modified DNA or protein. That’s because ingredients like soy, corn, cottonseed, or canola oils; cornstarch; or sugar from genetically engineered sugar beets have been purified so greatly that they don’t contain any trace of genetic modification. But even if they did, ingredients from currently grown genetically engineered crops are totally safe, according to the National Academy of Sciences and other such scientific bodies around the world.
Bottom line: While certain genetically engineered crops, like conventional crops, have led to environmental problems, ingredients from “GMO” and “non-GMO” crops are equally safe to eat. For straight talk about GMOs, check out this FAQ.
6. Juice it.
Juices, especially green juices, are hot, Beverage Daily reports. But you may not find many greens in them…or in your wallet after you leave the cash register.
Take Suja’s organic juices, which sell for roughly $5 per 12 oz. bottle at Whole Foods, Safeway, Target, CVS, and other chains. The company’s website uses such millennial-bait as “cold-pressured, always organic, never (ever) GMO, chemical-free, filler-free, gluten-free, preservative-free, juice without the junk.” But many “green” juices from Suja—Easy Greens, Green Charge, Green Delight, Green Supreme, King of Greens, Mighty Greens, Noon Greens, and Probiotic & Greens—have cheap, nutrient-poor apple juice as the first ingredient.
Suja Power Greens doesn’t have any apple juice, but it’s got more cucumber, celery, and grapefruit juices than juice made from chard, kale, or spinach.
Bottom line: Why not eat your greens? Leafy greens like kale, spinach, collards, Swiss chard, and turnip and mustard greens are loaded with nutrients like vitamins A, C, and K, folate, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, lutein, and fiber. And they’re delish.
7. Make it “with” whole grain.
Millennials have been called “the whole grain generation.” That’s a good thing if it means choosing more whole grains instead of refined grains. But what about foods that claim to be “made with” whole grain?
Companies use that claim to sell foods that actually contain relatively little whole grain. Thomas’ Plain Made With Whole Grain Bagels, for example, have more white flour than whole wheat. And Udi’s Gluten Free Soft & Hearty Whole Grain Bread has more tapioca and potato starch than brown rice and teff flour. Even Kellogg’s Special K Red Berries, with white rice as the first ingredient, touts “whole grain.”
Bottom line: Look for 100% whole grain when you buy breads, cereals, etc.