In this day of colorful food packaging, fast-paced commercials, and street ads vying for our attention, it can seem impossible to make the best food purchasing decisions for your budget and lifestyle. To put America's emphasis on food marketing into perspective, spending on canned, frozen, and preserved fruits, vegetables and specialty foods reached a whopping 1.36 billion dollars in 2016 alone. 

While it's often hard to tell what specific tricks food companies are using to amp up their sales, every consumer can and should be aware of some fundamentals of food marketing so that they can better keep themselves from falling for commonly-used techniques and spend their money in the right place.  

1. Refreshing-Looking Imagery

condiment, soda
Luna Zhang

Food companies often make beverages, especially soft drinks or sports drinks like Gatorade, look enticing by adding water imagery on their packaging. For example, designs of water droplets, the ocean, or the sun on many sugary drinks lure us in because we subconsciously associate these images with thirst-quenching properties. Next time, before reaching for that soda, Powerade, or juice, keep in mind that all three come loaded with sugar, and that water may be the best choice for hydration.

2. Catchy Phrases

sweet, corn, cereal, cornflakes, candy, milk, goody
Kristine Mahan

This one seems like a no-brainer, but I'll bet everyone has had an annoyingly catchy commercial jingle stuck in their heads after watching an ad on television. Every time we see or hear a food advertisement on TV or in print, those words impress upon us, at least to a certain extent.

Those who are especially susceptible are young children presented with colorful ads for (even more) colorful food, such as cereal. And because most of us aren't actively processing the food ads we see on TV, they often enter our brains subconsciously and unfiltered, making us more susceptible to buying the most heavily-promoted product rather than the smart, healthy option. 

3. Green-Washing

beer, alcohol, liquor, juice, soda, wine
Rachel Kupelian

If you've been to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or any grocery store espousing the "farmer's market" aesthetic, you've likely encountered culprits of green-washing.

Green-washing refers to the intentional effort made by businesses to present their products as environmentally-friendly, when in fact their claims are misreported, unvalidated, or do not actually better the environment. Vague terminology, lack of third-party verification, and a failure to present to consumers the whole picture are all ways companies "green-wash" their products.

For example, a company may claim their product contains locally-sourced ingredients from smaller companies instead of from large-scale manufacturers that contribute more to pollution; however, local companies may actually produce a larger carbon footprint per capita, which is intentionally left off the label. Additionally, food labeled as "harvested from a sustainably grown forest" can actually cause more water pollution, energy consumption, or greenhouse gas emissions during its production, all of which may create a greater negative net effect on the environment than sourcing from a sustainable forest does alone. 

Watch out for packaging with the color green, nature imagery, and explicit terms like "natural" or "sustainable" — for example, arsenic, uranium, and mercury are "all-natural" ingredients that are extremely harmful to your health. The company may be doing their part to protect the environment, but such ads warrant further consumer research to truly verify their claims (and to ensure we don't pay more for the alleged eco-friendly goods than we have to)!

4. Color Matters

coffee, milk, tea
Alex Frank

Ever wonder why a certain food packaging is always one color, or why the color may change over time? Food companies invest a significant amount of research into finding out what colors attract consumers and what colors deter them. In fact, an entire branch of psychology called "color psychology" has even been recognized, with implications on marketing in industries ranging from clothing to interior design.

In fact, the color of food logos is so influential that 85% of consumers reported that color is their primary determinant when making food purchases.

One notable example is that when the iconic parsley leaf logo of Hormel Foods was changed to a slightly different shade of green, consumers reported the food as tasting "fresher," when in fact the contents were not changed at all. 

5. Consider What Isn't Being Said

milk, dairy product, cream, ice, sweet, dairy
Sarah Yanofsky

This one is more implicit, and involves reading between the lines of food packaging. Companies selectively present positive information on food packages to attract us to products, but leave out negative information that may deter us from the purchase, or worse, harm our health in the long run.

For example, a company may claim their product contains real fruit, but that doesn't mean it contains a significant amount of fruit, or that the fruit hasn't been modified in some way that makes it unnatural. Additionally, food products may say they contain "no artificial flavors," but they do contain artificial colors and/or preservatives. 

6. Not Everything is Organic (Even if it Says it is)

berry, sweet, blackberry, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry
Alyssa Cronin

Most of us want to buy organic these days if we can afford it, and the health benefits may prove worthwhile in the long run. However, prices of organic foods are typically higher, with organic milk costing 60 to 109% more than non-organic varieties. In 2009, a study found that around 10% of milk factories, most of which were large-scale ones, produced falsely labeled "organic" milk that intentionally deceived customers. While this is usually not the case, being wary of organically-labeled foods and doing some research a few minutes before purchasing may help you easily stay clear of food industry lies that will only drain your wallet. 

7. You May Be Your Worst Enemy

cake, chocolate
Amelia Hitchens

This last one involves an invisible enemy most of us aren't even aware of — ourselves. In buying food and in our daily lives, we often choose to see and believe what we want to believe, rather than the objective truth.

Most people are willing to turn a blind eye to unethical food-sourcing practices of companies whose products we've been ingesting for years. I'm not saying that all large food companies are out to deceive consumers into buying unhealthy or unsustainable food, but it will take more effort on our part to consciously avoid food products that don't have our own — and the environment's — best interest in mind. 

At the end of the day, we must all put more effort into the decisions we make about the food we buy, because those with the power to consume have the power to change the outcome of their bodies, and to change the degree that their actions negatively impact the environment. 

salad, mango, cilantro, avocado, chicken
Julia Demorest