Today, many new food companies attempt to compete in the very competitive world of snack foods not by coming up with a unique product, but by attempting to create a unique and inspiring story behind their company. Visit a website for one of these young and hip companies, and you’ll have to read pages of positive feel-good energy-laden inspiration. If you still have any energy left, you’ll probably find their list of charities. Somewhere buried in all this will be a description of the company’s products and ingredients.
Companies like this make conspicuous use of label decoration. Label decoration can be many things, but a mainstay is marketing to trends. Gluten-free food is a huge trend. But, when a food that never ever contained gluten in the first place proudly displays the words GLUTEN FREE on the front package label, you see how far such decoration goes.
Another trend I’ve noticed, in the same vein as gluten-free, is whole grain. If you know much about food chemistry, you’ll find a combination of gluten-free and whole grain on the same label to be more than a bit ironic. After all, it’s grain foods, mostly wheat, that cause those with a self-imposed gluten phobia to quake in their boots. But, since all grains do not contain gluten, we will see them on the same label.
But, when I see a popcorn product proudly displaying WHOLE GRAIN on its label, I get a bit irritated. You see, all popcorn is whole grain. If it was not a whole gain, well, it would not pop! That is, if you try to remove the outer layer from a grain of popcorn, to reveal just the starch inside, you’d no longer have popcorn. So, the popcorn you have at the movies is technically a whole grain snack.
Technically True But Misleading Food Advertising
So why should I call foul? It is absolutely true that popcorn is whole grain. Sure, it is technically true. However, whole grain is not a traditional way of describing a popcorn product. That is, that the product is whole grain usually goes without saying. When a company conspicuously declares something that usually “goes without saying” on its label, we have what is a technically true but misleading claim. You see, the company is counting on your ignorance and wants to lead you to believe that there is something different about their popcorn. The same thing goes for gluten-free. Corn never contained any gluten. All popcorn is gluten-free. To call popcorn gluten-free is technically true but misleading.
Does it surprise you that an advertising claim can be true but still misleading? What matters is the intent to deceive and once you learn to recognize these types of claims, you’ll see that the majority of claims made about food are true but still misleading!
Popcorn popped in oil is popcorn popped in oil. If you pop it and put it into a snack bag, you’ve differentiated yourself from the large snackfood companies not one bit. But, if you attach a wonderful and inspiring story about your companies mission, talk about charity, and use label decoration to sell a bag of popcorn, you have a company like Angie’s BoomChickaPop. If you like the idea of the company and appreciate the social goodness, then more power to you. If you believe the fluff and label decoration, however, well, you’ve just been duped into paying move theater prices for storebought pre-popped popcorn.
Popcorn is a Low-Calorie Healthy Snack?
Even though popcorn is whole grain, is it a healthy snack? Well, it is fairly nutritious, like most whole grains but it’s hard to tell because of how we eat it. To pretend that popcorn is comparable to oatmeal, for example, is gilding the lily. But, let’s not malign popcorn needlessly. The reason it seems to be so low in calories and is, by extension, low in everything else compared to other whole grains, is because it’s a small grain that has been puffed to a higher volume. That is, a cup of popcorn is very little actual grain compared to a cup of oatmeal. Popcorn isn’t actually low in calories. All we have to do is compare 100 grams of popcorn to 100 grams of oatmeal cooked in water. The oatmeal delivers about 71 calories. The popcorn, on the other hand, has 500! However, that amount of popcorn is higher in protein and many micronutrients.
So, even the claim that popcorn is a low-calorie food, sans butter, is misleading. It’s actually a high-calorie food when compared to other grains. Just as regular sweet corn is not a low-calorie food. We simply tend to eat smaller amounts of it than the volume would suggest, unless we’re at the movies, of course! It is a comparatively nutritious food, but once you realize that a cup of popcorn is only 11 grams, whereas a cup of cooked oatmeal is 234 grams, you see the problem with comparing volume versus weight. You’d have to eat 21 cups of popcorn to actually be eating the same amount, by weight, as a one cup serving of oatmeal. Is claiming a food to be low-calorie because you actually put a relatively small amount of it in a bag also misleading? Well, since nutrition and calorie claims are always based on typical servings, or in the case of smaller snack bags, a one-bag serving, it is not misleading but it does mislead you into thinking popcorn is somehow special. It is not. And for me, well, I have to have loads of butter or I’m not going to bother.
Did you know, though, that popcorn wasn’t always considered a snack food? Folks used to eat it for breakfast. Instead of puffed wheat cereal, they ate puffed corn. In colonial America, they used to eat popcorn with milk just like we eat our cereal today.