The life cycle of a health trend: How food transforms into a miracle remedy
From kombucha to kale to a Kardashian-endorsed honey product, new “health food” trends catch on like a cold in a kindergarten classroom. But how does a food transform from just a food to into a life-saving elixir for the wellness-minded? First comes love, then comes amping up demand, then comes exploiting any of the potential benefits to sell, sell, sell!
This pattern can be applied to virtually any so-called health food. We might consider milk the O.G. of this imitable cycle: It’s only recently that we’ve challenged the notion that people should drink milk every day for strong bones. The dairy board has found a permanent spot for milk on the U.S. food pyramid, but eating guidelines from other countries don’t always embrace milk as critical for nutrition.
Here’s how the life cycle of a typical health food trend works.
Step 1: Co-opt a food from its roots
“Very seldom do these health food trends come out of nowhere,” Matt Miller, researcher for MarketPlace, a food and beverage marketing agency, said in an email. “The most prominent examples — kombucha, quinoa, kale, açai — all had been consumed by traditional or counterculture groups for a long time before they came to the attention of the American mainstream.”
Indeed, the trendy turmeric latte originated in India centuries ago. Haldi doodh, or turmeric milk, is often prepared in Indian households as a remedy for feeling sick, Khushbu Shah, a former Mic staffer, recently wrote for Taste. While turmeric does have some proven health benefits, as Shah pointed out, the new-age coffee shop order has earned an inflated reputation for being a magical cure. “Each one of these drinks have soft, luxurious names like ‘moon milk’ or ‘golden mylk’ and frequently come with a hefty price tag.”
Japan’s matcha experienced a similar journey, starting out as a drink most Americans didn’t know existed to forming its own little empire, with matcha-specific shops opening around the country. By the time you get to matcha ice cream, it should be pretty obvious that the health benefits come a long ways after palatability and the desire to sell. No one should be shocked if turmeric cafes become a thing.
Step 2: Oversell the food’s benefits
Once a food is taken from its roots and introduced to bigger communities, that food will acquire advocates who promote the food. “Through their advocacy, these folks can be the bridge from the food’s traditional audience to the retailers or media figures who bring it to the mainstream and begin to apply more sophisticated, mass market branding and product development techniques,” Miller said.
Kombucha is a prime example here. The fermented tea was first brewed in China about 2,000 years ago, where people consumed it for its alleged healing properties, according to Forbes. Today, its health claims have evolved to curing cancer, promoting gut health and hampering depression. And with a high concentration of probiotics, which have been celebrated for the potential to bolster gut health, kombucha products have increasingly earned more shelf space at the grocery store. While some studies have found probiotics to be healthful, there is nowhere near enough evidence to support many of kombucha’s other claims.
Marketers have side-stepped this little problem by branding the drinks with aspirational, nonmedical and ultimately meaningless words like “reawaken” and “redefine.”
Step 3: Play into the consumer’s psyche
A product’s benefits can be easily magnified through positioning that forms something called a health halo — a psychological phenomenon that encourages consumers to make purchasing decisions based on a single claim.
“The health halo effect is a phenomenon in which a food or food company is perceived as healthy based on one claim,” Natalie Allen, clinical faculty member of the Biomedical Sciences Department at Missouri State University previously told Mic. “Consumers overestimate the healthfulness of a food item based on [one] claim,” she explained, noting that good marketers will use the technique to their advantage.
In the case of kombucha, consumers (and manufacturers) hone in on its probiotic content, while underplaying other factors like sugar content. This phenomenon might be why Target has gotten away with producing its own line of kombucha that is, with 17 grams of sugar per serving, objectively not so healthy.
The Kale Blazer, a drink from the juice company Naked, owned by PepsiCo, pulled off a similar offense in 2016. The product emphasized its kale content — another ingredient that has been overhyped in the wellness zeitgeist — while failing to be transparent about its other, less healthful ingredients. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found the drink’s claim to be so misleading, it filed a lawsuit against the company.
“PepsiCo misleadingly markets Naked Juices as predominantly containing high-value ingredients such as acai berry, blueberries, kale, and mango, when in fact the predominant ingredient in the product line is usually cheap, nutrient-poor apple juice,” the lawsuit posed. In addition, CSPI called out the product for marketing itself with a “No Sugar Added” label, which, according to the organization, suggests to consumers that the product is low in sugar. One bottle of the Kale Blazer contains seven more grams of sugar than a Snickers candy bar.
While the bottle of so-called “green juice” doesn’t technically lie to consumers, it attracts buyers with popular key words that don’t tell the whole story. This is a typical play in a health food trend’s life cycle; as the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2016 Food & Health Survey revealed, consumer buying decisions are greatly impacted by the perceived healthfulness of a food or drink.
Step 4: Get your product an influencer
And make it a Kardashian if you can. Manuka honey earned coveted placement on Kourtney Kardashian’s Instagram in 2016, when the celeb was named the global ambassador for New Zealand-based Manuka Doctor, a beauty and skin-care brand that harnesses the maybe-promising powers of Manuka honey. As with other burgeoning health trends, the Manuka plant had traditional uses — it was an antibacterial topical treatment for Maori people. Today, it is shilled for treating burns, lowering cholesterol, curing diabetes and reversing signs of aging.
Part of Manuka honey’s antibacterial benefits come from its high concentration of methylglyoxal, a compound that, while found in most honeys, is extra potent in certain Manuka strains. But here’s the twist: A recent study conducted by the U.K.’s Fera Science found that some Manuka honey brands mislead consumers with labeling, as their products do not meet certain standards of MG potency, which determines whether a product can be considered therapeutic. One product from Kardashian-endorsed Doctor Manuka “was found to have MG levels so low they didn’t even register — suggesting it may not contain actual Manuka at all,” a press release stated.
But Manuka’s halo of benefits has become more prevalent than its actual benefits. The ingredient has become so popular that it is used as a hook to get consumers to buy energy bars, cereals and even lollipops.
Step 5: Let corporate take over
A health trend has met its final fate — and has probably lost all remaining health benefits — once corporate companies decide to invest in it. Naked’s Kale Blazer is the perfect example: PepsiCo used the public’s trust in kale as a “super food” as a launchpad to sell green sugar water. In the height of protein’s popularity, General Mills launched a Cheerios Protein line, which contained 17 times the sugar as the original Cheerios, according to CSPI. The new cereal also required the consumer to add milk in order to reach its promoted 11 grams of protein, but this fact was only subtly hinted at on the box.
All of this is to say that consumers should look at food items that aggressively promote their health benefits with a skeptical eye. “Functional foods, they are not about health,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told the New York Times. “They are about marketing.” Another way to look at it? In the words of Greatist’s Derek Flanzraich, “Most health brands don’t give a shit about you.”