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Food Marketing and Labeling


We do not make food choices in a vacuum. ... We may believe that we make informed decisions about food choice, but we cannot do so if we are oblivious of the ways food companies influence our choices.4

– Marion Nestle

child looking at an ice cream cone

“A basic misconception has stymied our response to the obesity epidemic: the belief that food-related decisions are consciously and deliberately made. Our reluctance to interfere with or regulate the food environment is a direct consequence of the belief that people's food choices reflect their true desires. … The reality is that food choices are often automatic and made without full conscious awareness.” – Deborah Cohen and Susan Babey1
Image copyright.

Marketing is a priority for the success of any business, from small-scale, independent farms to multinational food manufacturers. Food marketing takes many forms and can involve building relationships with customers, raising brand awareness, developing new products, promoting them through advertising, and even paying grocery stores for prominent shelf space, all with the goal of promoting sales.

For better and for worse, food marketing may have a powerful effect on what people eat—and ultimately their health. U.S. food and beverage manufacturers focus most of their marketing efforts on promoting sales of soft drinks, breakfast cereals, candy, snacks, and other nutrient-poor products.2,3 In environments engineered to encourage purchases of these products, willpower and knowing how to eat healthy, while important, are often not enough to stop people from indulging in eating behaviors that increase their risks for diet-related disease.1,4

The potential for marketing to influence diets and health raises important questions: To what degree are individuals responsible for their own food choices, versus the companies that leverage their knowledge of human psychology to promote sales of their products? And what, if any, is the role of government in regulating food marketing, particularly to children?

Added Value

Broccoli the miracle food

In 2010, the Television Bureau of Canada launched an advertising campaign featuring broccoli, “the Miracle Food.” Following the campaign, broccoli sales increased by 8 percent, while consumers’ perceptions of broccoli as a tasty and healthy food rose substantially. The goal of the campaign was not to promote broccoli but rather to demonstrate the effectiveness of television advertising.7
Image source: Television Bureau of Canada.

Marketing is a tool that can be used in ways that either promote or harm health. An advertising campaign for broccoli, for example, successfully increased broccoli sales and improved consumers’ perceptions of broccoli as a tasty and healthy food.7 Why then are U.S. food marketing budgets overwhelmingly used to promote sales of nutrient-poor products like sodas and sweetened breakfast cereals?

Whether in the form of added convenience, longer shelf life, or enhanced flavors or appearances, food processing has an ancient history of adding value to raw agricultural goods. Added value is the difference between the cost of manufacturing a product and the price consumers pay for it. A farmer selling a gallon of raw goat milk, for example, might receive $3.20, while processing it into 16 ounces of goat cheese raises the selling price to $16.8 Added value is the reason people pay $4 for a box of corn flakes—perhaps for convenience, taste, or an appealing cartoon animal on the box—even though the corn used to make it is worth only a few cents.9,10

Adding value increases profits for food manufacturers. Unfortunately, some of the most highly processed and nutrient-poor products generate the greatest profits. This is partly because they are often made with raw materials, such as grains, that cost the manufacturer little and are versatile enough to be processed into many different high-value products that appeal to consumer preferences for salt, sugar, fat, and convenience. 4 These highly profitable products tend to get the most marketing attention.

Many fruits and vegetables, by contrast, are limited to being frozen, canned, peeled, sliced, pre-washed, or sold raw—meaning they have less potential for adding value.4  Although food manufacturers are finding new and more profitable ways of marketing fruits and vegetables,11 broccoli has yet to steal the spotlight from chocolate-frosted cereal. 

New Products

Eating healthfully is neither complicated, nor time-consuming, nor punishing. And we don’t need any more new products to do it.

– Joan Gussow12

Ad spending

Annual spending by U.S. food and beverage manufacturers on advertising in 1997—the last year industry-wide data were openly available.

The vast majority of U.S. food advertising dollars are spent to promote soft drinks, candy, snacks, and other nutrient-poor products. This may have profound effects on what people eat, as sales of products have been shown to increase with the visibility and repetition of the ads promoting them.16
Data source: USDA Economic Research Service.2

Success in the highly competitive food and beverage industry usually means developing unique products. Each year, roughly 20,000 new products are introduced to U.S. food stores,13 compared to just 6,000 annually in the 1980s.14 Roughly half are in the form of candy, gum, snacks, and beverages.13 Some are new versions of old products that have been fortified with added nutrients (e.g., “Now with more fiber!”), and some have been reformulated to contain less fat, sugar, or salt.14 Sometimes introducing a new product means branding a traditional food, such as Greek yogurt, and promoting it among new audiences. Between 2006 and 2011, sales of Greek yogurt skyrocketed from just 0.7 to 19 percent of total yogurt sales.15

For every successful new product, there have been countless failures, including Life Savers soda, Pepsi A.M. (the breakfast cola), frozen entrées branded with Colgate (the toothpaste company), and snack foods made with Olestra—a fat substitute that can have a laxative effect. Because store shelf space is limited, only the most successful products remain; the rest are pulled from stores.

With such fierce competition among new products, a successful marketing campaign can mean the difference between a global sensation and a financial disaster.4 This is one reason advertising and other forms of marketing so frequently hype the “next big thing,” even when there is little or no meaningful differences between these “new” products and their predecessors. 

Marketing to Children

Vending Machines

While sodas are banned from school vending machines in California, energy drinks and juices are still widely available.

Company representatives have admitted that selling their products in schools is only marginally profitable, but they benefit from recruiting lifelong customers at a young age.24 This approach is based on the theory that the younger the age at which brand awareness is established, the stronger the brand loyalty will be as a child grows.25
Photo credit: Brett Myers/Youth Radio, 2011. Flickr. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Marketing campaigns are carefully tailored to appeal to specific groups. Children are frequently targeted because they sometimes purchase food with their own money, and they influence what their parents buy. In 2006, U.S. food and beverage companies spent an estimated $10 billion marketing to youth.17

The typical American child saw an estimated 4,787 televised advertisements for food and beverages in 2013—more than 13 per day.  Fast food was advertised more than any other product.18 Although television was still their primary means of reaching children and adolescents in 2012, U.S. food and beverage companies are making greater use of online, mobile, and viral marketing.3

Food and beverage companies also reach youth through schools. Soft drink companies, for example, in the 1990s began paying schools for the exclusive rights to sell their products in vending machines and at school events.14 By 2005, an estimated 80 percent of public high schools had “pouring rights” contracts with soft drink companies.19 Food brands can also be found displayed on sports uniforms, school supplies, and even educational materials.14

How does exposure to advertising affect what children eat? Studies have consistently shown that children exposed to food advertising on television prefer and choose advertised products more frequently, compared to children who do not view such ads. This effect has been demonstrated for both healthy and unhealthy foods.20

Marketing to young children raises ethical concerns. Most children under 8 years of age are developmentally unable to understand that the purpose of commercials is to persuade people to buy products.21 Staff at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government organization responsible for protecting consumers, stated in 1981 that it is unfair and deceptive to advertise to children younger than 6 years,22 but a ban was never implemented.23

Food Labeling

Coco Krispies cereal box

"By [Kellogg’s] logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves, and it will boost immunity."32 – Kelly Brownell

Health claims on food packaging are often used for marketing purposes. In some cases, these claims are misleading or not supported by scientific evidence. Kellogg’s, for example, has been repeatedly criticized for making controversial health claims about its breakfast cereals.32 In 2009, a claim about boosting immunity (pictured) was discontinued after public health advocates challenged its validity.33,34

People rely on food labels to tell them what a product contains, its nutritional value, and how it was produced. For example, shoppers may look for products labeled “organic,” “no trans fats,” or “antibiotic-free,” or may want to know about animal welfare standards or fair labor practices. Using labels to convey these qualities is an important part of marketing a product.

Some food labels adhere to strict federal guidelines. The Nutrition Facts panel, for example, has been required since 1994 and is closely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The U.S. Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, requires a certification process for its USDA Organic label (though organic standards have been the subject of frequent debate).

Much of what appears on food packaging, however, is only loosely regulated, difficult to verify, and/or misleading.26 Consumers frequently seek out products with the “natural” label, for example, and falsely believe the label means that no pesticides or genetically engineered organisms were used in production.27 Food packages also frequently tout nutrient content claims such as “reduced sugar,” “high in fiber,” or “antioxidant rich.” Although these claims must comply with FDA guidelines,28 they often draw attention to one narrow aspect of products that are otherwise unhealthy, such as “fat-free” cookies with high sugar content, and sweetened breakfast cereals with claims about vitamins and minerals. Products featuring such claims, particularly those marketed to children, are often high in saturated fat, salt, and/or sugar.29,30 Studies suggest shoppers frequently trust front-of-package claims instead of reading the Nutrition Facts panel.26 To address concerns about misleading labels, the FDA has been exploring ways to standardize how nutrition claims are presented on food packages.31


The following list of suggested resources is intended as a starting point for further exploration. Some materials may not reflect the views of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

For teachers

Reports and other documents

Academic journal articles


1. Cohen D a, Babey SH. Candy at the cash register - a risk factor for obesity and chronic disease. N Engl J Med. 2012;367(15):1381-1383.
2. Gallo A. Food Advertising in the United States. In: America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. USDA Economic Research Service; 1999:173-180.
3. U.S. Federal Trade Commission. A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report.; 2012.
4. Nestle M. Food Politics: How the Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. First edit. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2002.
7. Television Bureau of Canada. The Miracle Food. 2010.
8. Sureshwaran S. Women in Agriculture Teach Others about Value-added Goat Milk Products. USDA. 2012.
9. Leibtag E. Corn prices near record high, but what about food costs? Amber Waves. 2008;6(1).
10. Berck P, Leibtag E, Solis A, Villas-Boas S. Patterns of Pass-through of Commodity Price Shocks to Retail Prices. Am J Agric Econ. 2009;91(5):1456-1461.
11. Schultz EJ. How Fruit and Veggie Marketers Are Making Produce Cool for Kids. Advert Age. 2013.
12. Gussow J. A chicken little in our future? (interview). Nutr Action Heal. 1991;18(1):5-7.
13. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. New Products. Process Mark. 2013.
14. Nestle M. Food Politics: How the Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Third edit. Berkely: University of California Press; 2013.
15. Thompson D. How Did Greek Yogurt Get So Popular? Atl. 2011.
16. Nestle M. Food Politics: How the Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2002.
17. Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2006.
18. Dembek CR, Harris JL, Schwartz MB. Trends in Television Food Advertising to Young People: 2013 Update. Yale Rudd Center; 2014.
19. Finkelstein DM, Hill EL, Whitaker RC. School food environments and policies in US public schools. Pediatrics. 2008;122(1):e251-e259.
20. Story M, French S. Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2004;1(1):3.
21. Shifrin DL, Brown A, Dreyer BP, et al. Children, adolescents, and advertising. Pediatrics. 2006;118(6):2563-2569.
22. Commission FT. In the Matter of Children’s Advertising:  FTC Final Staff Report and Recommendation. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office; 1981.
23. J. Howard Beales. Advertising to Kids and the FTC: A Regulatory Retrospective That Advises the Present. U.S. Federal Trade Commission; 2004.
24. Levine S. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2008.
25. Connor SM. Food-related advertising on preschool television: building brand recognition in young viewers. Pediatrics. 2006;118(4):1478-1485.
26. Nestle M, Ludwig DS. Front-of-package food labels: public health or propaganda? JAMA. 2010;303(8):771-772.
27. Consumer Reports National Research Center. Food Labels Survey: 2014 Nationally-Representative Phone Survey. 2014.
28 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 2. 21CFR101.54. 2014.
29 Colby SE, Johnson L, Scheett A, Hoverson B. Nutrition marketing on food labels. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2010;42(2):92-98.
30. Sims J. Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food. 2011.
31. Hawley KL, Roberto C a, Bragg M a, Liu PJ, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD. The science on front-of-package food labels. Public Health Nutr. 2013;16(3):430-439.
32. Horovitz B. Critics blast Kellogg’s claim that cereals can boost immunity. USA Today. 2009.
33. Horovitz B. Kellogg pulls immunity claim from Rice Krispies. USDA Today. 2009. Horovitz, B. (2009). Critics blast Kellogg?s claim that cereals can boost immunity. USA Today.
34. Carey S. Snap, Crackle, Slap: FTC Objects to Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Health Claim. Wall Str J. 2010.