Flavour of the Week

Selling Obesity – Part 1

flavour-of-the-week-logoWe can’t help noticing the changes in food marketing. It might just be us remembering the good ol’ days, but it seems that food marketing is getting more and more aggressive. The Halloween candy was out in early September, the eggnog in October, what’s next? We’re still digesting Thanksgiving and it’s already time to start shopping for Christmas!

Food marketing is often touted as one of the primary causes of obesity. To what extent does marketing influence our food intake? Do food marketers have an obligation or moral responsibility to help people eat healthier or is it buyer beware and they can feel justified in any means that maximize profits?

We expose the “4Ps” food marketers use when trying to encourage consumers to eat (or overeat) their products in the hopes that awareness can impact buyer habits and promote healthy choices.

With today’s busy lifestyle many people are all looking for the quickest, most convenient foods that will fill them up. The food industry is happy oblige as there is a lot of added value in these products. A plain carrot on its own is not very profitable BUT form it into a baby bite size, put it in a colourful, single serve packet and add a high fat/high calorie dip, now that you can charge top dollar for!

Food marketers can manipulate the “4Ps” to maximize profits (1). We discuss Pricing and Promotion in Part 1 and will tackle Product and Placement next week in Part 2.


Pricing is one of the strongest marketing factors linked to energy intake and obesity (1). The price of foods has been declining, especially the cost of processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. People can now afford to buy more calories and eat more calories than they could in the past (2,3). Indeed, lower food prices are associated with increased energy intake (2,3).

Conversely, increased prices should decrease consumption. This has been demonstrated in one study where a 10% increase in fast food prices and full service restaurants lead to a 0.7% decrease in the obesity rates (4). The flip side is sometimes increased prices can increase consumption because people want to get their money’s worth! The specific example was an all-you-can eat pizza restaurant (5).

The good news: price adjustments work for healthy foods as well. A 12.5% reduction in the price of “healthier” foods increased the purchase of these foods by 11% in one study and the shift to healthier foods lasted for at least six months after the promotion was done (6). It has been suggested that food manufacturers could impact dietary choices by reducing the price of healthy foods by improved distribution, packaging to reduce spoilage and bulk sales (1).


The food industry is a top advertiser and the products that are most frequently advertised are those that are nutritionally poor – high in fat, sodium, and added sugars (7). It is very difficult to distinguish the effects of television advertising and obesity from the unavoidable fact that TV is a sedentary activity and could be impacting obesity via decreased energy expenditure. However, signs seem to point to food advertising influencing the diets of children (1). [See our previous post Marketing to Children for more details]. 

But it’s not just TV anymore! Food marketers advertise in video games, on social networks, on front-of-packaging and through event sponsorships (1). All of this to convince you that eating their foods is fun and socially rewarding. You couldn’t possibly have a fun party without all of that junk food!

Branding, labelling and framing can also impact our expectations of taste, fullness, and nutritional value. For example, a pasta salad that is promoted as the “salad special” is viewed as a better choice than if that same dish was advertised as the “pasta special” (8). Indeed marketing descriptions have been found to impact the brain in neuroimaging studies (9) and physiological satiation, as determined by ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates food intake (10).

Particularly alarming for us, are the foods with “health halos”. This occurs when one healthy aspect of a not-so-healthy food is highlighted and leads to an underestimation of calories and overeating (1). Here’s an example:

Researchers found that a hamburger alone was estimated to have 761 kcal; however, when that same hamburger was paired with a salad the estimate of its caloric content decreased to 583 kcal (11).

Health-related claims are also problematic as the decision to actually use them rests with the food marketers. In order to include the health claims, the products do need to meet the minimum standard; however, allowing the manufacture to choose whether or not to include the health claim means the healthiest foods are often not the ones with the health claims. I’ve never seen a health claim on broccoli, yet I have seen Froot Loops advertising that they are a “source of fibre”!

No Baloney’s advice? When purchasing your food products keep in mind that the marketing goal is to have you buy/eat as much of the product as possible; NOT to be as healthy as possible. Do your own price adjustment when shopping. Consider the nutritional content of the foods you are purchasing and factor that into your decision on the value of the food. When trying to determine the “healthiness” of a product read the entire nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list. Don’t just take the product at face value based on the name, brand or front-of-packaging information.


  1. Chandon P, Wansink B. Does food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Nutr Rev 2012; 70:571-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00518.x.
  2. Drewnowski A. The real contribution of added sugars and fats to obesity. Epidemiol Rev. 2007; 29:160-71.
  3. Powell LM.  Fast food costs and adolescent body mass index: evidence from panel data. J Health Econ 2009; 28:963-70.
  4. Chou SY, Grossman M, Saffer H. An economic analysis of adult obesity: results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. J Health Econ 2004; 23:565-87.
  5. Just DR, Wansink B. The flat-rate pricing paradox: confilicting effects of “all-you-can-eat” buffet pricing. Rev Econ Stat 2001; 93:193-200.
  6. Ni Mhurchu C, Blakely T, Jiang Y, Eyles HC, Rodgers A. Effects of price discounts and tailored nutrition education on supermarket purchases: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 91:736-47.
  7. Batada A, Seitz MD, Wootan MG, Story M. Nine out of 10 food advertisements shown during Saturday morning children’s television programming are for foods high in fat, sodium, or added sugars, or low in nutrients. J Am Diet Assoc 2008; 108:673-8.
  8. Irmak C et al. The impact of product name on dieters’ and nondieters’ food evaluations and consumption. J Consum Res 2011; 38:390-405.
  9. Plassmann H, O’Doherty J, Shiv B, Rangel A. Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2008; 105:1050-4.
  10. Crum et al. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychol 2011; 30:424-429.
  11. Chernev A, Gal D. Categorization effects in value judgments: averaging bias in evaluating combinations of vices and virtues. J Market Res 2010; 47:738-747.

3 thoughts on “Selling Obesity – Part 1

  1. Pingback: TGIF | No Baloney

  2. Pingback: Selling Obesity – Part 2 | No Baloney

  3. Pingback: Ending Mindless Munchies | No Baloney

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