Junk Food Design 101

Tricks to Recognizing When Health Food Is Actually Junk Food

Category: Nutrition

I was at the grocery store and overheard a couple debating over buying a box of ‘breakfast cookies’. The woman was trying to persuade him to put them in the cart, and the man was arguing to leave them on the shelf.

“I’m trying to watch my junk food” he said to her. “Let’s keep those out of the house”.

Then she fired back with “These are healthy – they are gluten free and made with natural ingredients!”

Guess what?

She’s not the only one falling for that trick.

That is the beauty of marketing: the ability to use tricks to make processed food sound ‘good’ for you. This way you buy their product and you will continue to buy their product, thinking it’s better for you than the regular cookies.

Pretty good marketing technique I’d say!

So how can we avoid this? How can we make sure that the packaged food we are eating is actually good for us?

Number one is to recognize that if it’s packaged in some way, it is most likely processed. Real food comes from the ground and doesn’t need a package.

Now I’m not saying all processed foods are a bad thing;

some things that are processed like almond milk or oatmeal may still be real whole food, but in order to make them accessible to the consumer, they have been flattened for easier cooking or milked and placed in a container for easy pouring.

But what about the vegan ice cream, gluten free crackers, and the ancient grain bread?

Below are some ways marketing experts use jargon and buzz words to make you feel like the product is healthy enough to throw in your cart:


Remember Tony the Tiger and how he feels GREEEAAAATTTT because he eats his Frosted Flakes? Or NHL all-star Wayne Gretzky on Shreddies and Sugar Crisp boxes? These are all positive associations. Having a happy cartoon character or an athlete that you may recognize or look up to creates positive emotions towards that brand or product. Did you grow up eating your mom’s homemade carrot cake? No wonder you start drooling every time you see carrot cake!


Specific colours used for packaging can have major affects on our hunger and mood. Notice how most fast food joints use the colours yellow and/or red? This was not done by mistake: Red triggers stimulation and appetite where yellow triggers feelings of happiness and friendliness.


Slogans used like “Take a Break” or “Precious Moments”, “You are worth it” all tap into that mindset of I deserve this which is linked to emotional eating. It only takes a few of these slogans to come across your day before your will power caves and you finally give in.


Phrases like “Gluten Free” “Organic” and “Vegan” are all the rage. What does this really mean though? Don’t be fooled: Vegan cookies, for example, can still be highly processed and full of sugar and saturated or processed fats: A lot of gluten free baked goods are filled with highly processed ingredients and high sugar to make up for the lack of gluten (sometimes this must be done to keep the product tasty). Just because the label says it’s organic, doesn’t mean it is low sugar or low in calories. Don’t even get me started on breakfast cookies…


Keep in mind that there is a difference between whole wheat bread and multigrain bread. If the bread doesn’t have 100% whole wheat on its first ingredient listed under ‘ingredients’, then it is not whole wheat, regardless of what the claim is on the front of the packaging. Next time you are at the grocery store, check out the ingredients list on a lot of the ‘multigrain’ bread selections. They usually have oats and fancy seeds on the outside of the loaf, but the inside is nothing but white bread which is higher in sugar and has almost no fiber.

So next time you are at the grocery store, keep these tips in mind. If the item is in package, don’t just read the front of it. Spin it sideways and read the list under Ingredients.  This is where the real information is.

Packaging is for marketing- a way to grab your attention so you buy the product. Trust me, your waistline will thank you later!

Your coach, 

Megan Williamson

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