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Food marketing: How are you being influenced?


Isle at a grocery store.
So many options, so many messages - what should I choose?

Food marketing is all around us. It shapes the choices we make about the products and brands we buy. Imagine you're shopping for food for your family and are faced with all the messages on product labels: Organic? Fortified with iron? With countless options, what should you buy? It can feel overwhelming.

I recently finished my degree in nutrition and dietetics, with a practicum year with Northern Health. In my Public Health placement, I did a project on the marketing of infant formula. One of my key learnings: marketing works by targeting our emotions.

What is food marketing?

Simply put, food marketing is advertising that tries to get us to buy certain food products. It includes TV commercials and ads in print media, but also ads on social media and endorsements by influencers. Marketing can be targeted - based on your age and gender, or online search or purchase history.

Why should you care about food marketing?

Person with short hair looking down at their mobile phone.
Marketing is everywhere: In the grocery store, on TV, and on your phone. 

Food marketing aims to link products and brands with certain lifestyles, get us to buy products, and build brand loyalty. For example, marketing of infant formula can affect our decisions about feeding our babies. Although spitting up and crying are common baby experiences, messages like “helps reduce fussiness and crying” can feel enticing to some parents. In fact, research shows that formula marketing reduces breastfeeding rates.

How are you exposed to food marketing?

We can be exposed to marketing in many sneaky ways. Have you received promotional emails from companies after you signed up for an online contest? Have you noticed ads popping up on your social media feeds after doing an online search? I have! For example, after I looked up information about infant formula, I began to get bombarded by ads on Instagram for baby products. Parents have also described packages of infant formula showing up in the mail, without knowing how companies got their information.

How does food marketing affect you?

We know that marketing targets our anxieties and emotions - it makes us worry about things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. For example, companies make us question whether we’re getting enough nutrients from our normal food intake and then they offer us a “solution” – their product, of course - such as supplement drinks marketed for pregnant people or for young children. These messages make us think we need something we likely don’t.

What can you do instead?

Marketing is influential. As you become more aware of when and how you’re being targeted by food companies, you might wonder where to turn for more trustworthy information. Here are a few options:

Final reflection

In an ideal world, we would make decisions about feeding our families without the influence of marketing. Yet, marketing is all around us, and it works. It’s meant to make us feel like we need products to feel full and complete. Companies use a lot of time, energy, and strategies to get us to buy their products. So, first, be kind to yourself. Then, when possible, be aware of your choices and reflect on why you are making them so, where it’s feasible, they align with your goals and values.

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Editor's note: Seamus Damstrom has grown his passion for healthy eating over the years, and was recognized as a Northern Health Community Health Star.