Fitness food is not mainstream, so stop selling it like it is

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

These guys have been for a run... I haven't
These guys have been for a run... I haven't

Related tags Nutrition Snack

We’ve all been there – reached for a high protein, fiber dense, fatty acid-rich snack as a healthier option. But did we all hit the gym that day to compensate? I certainly didn't…

And why would we? I bought that bar from my local retail store, next to the everyday breakfast cereals. It's not a 'specialist' product; it's for everyone. Or is it?

My colleague Niamh Michail got me thinking about, and questioning, my own snacking behavior after her article​ on an invigorating piece of research that suggested ‘fitness foods’ that used imagery and messaging on-pack (hunks in trunks, slim-trimmed women and healthy buzz words) actually made us SKIP exercise!

Now, either these snackers have lost concentration in the myriad of spandex and bulging muscle or, as is my case, think these pin-ups are doing more than enough work for the both of us. 

I’ll eat it coz it’s good for me

Let us not forget that there are a vast array of consumers in this world. One category is the 'careful consumer' who watch what they eat - reading labels, being strict on portion control etc. In some cases, these consumers fall into what I like to call the 'fitness freak' zone - I'm thinking about a very good friend who trains six times a week for two hours each day and does a triathlon or marathon every other month. But, in other cases these careful eaters could also be categorized as an occasional gym-goer or avid walker (where I like to see myself) or, dare-we-say it, a sit-at-home-watch-Netflix-all-day kind of person.

The researchers from Munich and Pennsylvania State University reckon these latter two groups – what they prefer to refer to as ‘restrained eaters’ with a ‘weight control goal’ – could be victims of sporty imagery.

Findings suggested​ this group were least inclined to exercise after viewing and eating fitness-branded products – trail mixes were one example studied.

The authors hypothesize this could be due to a couple of things: sports foods were often smaller in size, meaning consumers underestimated the appropriate serving and they were also often labelled as low-fat and boasted healthy-sounding names associated with natural ingredients, creating a green light for snackers. 

Now, I can relate to all of the above. But are these consumers and I truly vulnerable to the (unintentionally) backward marketing like the researchers suggest?

I’m not so sure we can put it down to some marketing. There is so much more behind nutrition and exercise decisions than one on-pack image or a few buzz words in an advert. There are triggers etched deep into society – from school, the home, friends, family, music, films, videogames and much, much more - and it’s these places we need to look to first, holistically, if we want to change food habits.

Despite this, the researchers said “more emphasis should be placed on monitoring food manufacturers’ marketing practices... in particular when cues related to human fitness are used on food products”. 

The true problem?

girl boxer

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s any harm in being more focused on what is and isn’t allowed in marketing – self-regulation is important and responsible. But, I think we need to turn this conversation on its head.

For me, the real problem lies in who the true target of these products is.

Every day, manufacturers tell me ‘we have something for everyone – anyone who likes good/real/honest/organic/gluten-free/any positive food word will like our product’.  And I’m hearing this more and more.

That right there is the problem. Not a few fitness images on pack.

You only have to look over at the drinks category and the infamous Lucozade brand to see this in play. The energy-dense drink was designed for endurance athletes working out for 60-90 minutes, yet you can pick it up in any mainstream retail store. Many of these shoppers chug this down after a slow 30 minute jog. The result? More calories consumed than burned off. Now, the manufacturer did develop 'lite' versions to cater for these 'lighter' sports people, but let's be honest, after years of downing the real stuff who's going to switch to 'lite'?

These products – which are often nutritionally developed for athletes or active consumers – are being eaten (and drunk) by the masses because they are on sale to the masses. 

Should this be the case? Should that protein dense trail mix target everyone? Should that high-carb energy bar be eaten by all? 

Some may argue this is a strong case FOR the fitness imagery, i.e. "as you can see, this isn't for you" kind of strategy. But this clearly (as the study shows) wouldn't work.

What you buy and where

weight lifting fitness sport

My bet is that where it’s being stocked will play a much stronger role in who picks it up.

Stock that food in health stores and gyms and you’re likely to get it eaten by active, sporty consumers. Stock it in value and c-stores and you can bet your bottom dollar (see what I did there?) there will be plenty of un-sporty types picking up it up. It's not that complicated. 

Protein is the best (or should I say worst?) example of this. It’s my biggest bugbear with industry at the moment - there is too much protein in places and products it doesn’t need to be in.  

In a world of rising global obesity I understand the nutritional logic, but most of the world is also fiber, vitamin D and iron deficient. Most people are NOT protein deficient.

Perhaps if these ‘sports brands’ were stocked in the right places and weren’t going after such a wide net, this study may not even exist. 

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Here's the REAL problem

Posted by Matt,

I find it comical that people want to blame an item for the root cause of something. That would be like saying McDonald's makes people fat (which it COULD in some circumstances if ate in excess). Blaming "sports food" in this article rather than looking at someone's FULL DAY'S worth of nutrition is hilarious. I'm sure the 200-400 calorie product mentioned in this article will make people fat and unhealthy when they are consuming over 2,000 calories a day. Get real. I'm sure the donuts people are shoving in their mouth at work for a quick snack isn't doing anything? Look at the whole picture, not just a piece that you want to bastardize because you can't hold yourself accountable for making smart nutrition choices.

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What the world needs now

Posted by Ken,

High-calorie 'sports foods' are marketed everywhere from petrol/gas stations to drug stores/pharmacies, when what the majority of people need is lower calorie, healthy snack foods.

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