Three Steps to be Food Smart when the Media Mystifies

Melinda Hemmelgarn with TomatoesThere’s a missing ingredient in our diet today that’s imperative to our nation’s health. You can’t add it to your grocery list, forage it at the local farmers’ market or plant it in your garden. It’s media literacy — the ability to critically question the hidden agendas in our “media diets” and evaluate the manipulating media messages we’re bombarded with daily .

Have no fear, Melinda Hemmelgarn is here. A national public health advocate, registered dietitian and award-winning “Food Sleuth” columnist, Hemmelgarn is the cape crusader for helping us, particularly if we have children, develop the savvy-thinking skills to objectively understand the media and thereby support a truly healthy food system. “After decades of working in the nutrition field, I grew convinced that the ‘eat healthy’ messages from the public health community simply weren’t working,” explains Hemmelgarn. “People aren’t changing their eating habits and a key reason why is that we are constantly bombarded with media messages promoting unhealthy food choices. When Pepsi has an annual advertising budget of $1.3 billion, their messages dilute the National Cancer Institute’s “eat more fruits and vegetables” messages, promoted with a budget of less than $5 million.”

Knowing that healthy food message couldn’t compete on advertising dollars, Hemmelgarn instead chose to help teach people how to navigate the message minefield of today’s vast media empire. “Kids are particularly vulnerable. Today’s average child spends nearly 6 ½ hours a day media-absorbed, according to the Kaiser Foundation ,” Hemmelgarn comments. “I want to help children become ‘healthy skeptics.’ Rather than taking every media message at face value, I want to help kids learn to question the source , content and intent.”

What does media literacy have to do with our food system? Everything, according to Hemmelgarn. “ When we learn how to think critically about media, we start questioning where our food comes from, who produced it and under what conditions. We start making better , more fully informed choices about what we eat,” adds Hemmelgarn, who feels healthy food choices can truly change our world. “Once we become media savvy, we’re not only better able to choose a beverage – we can also better choose a president.”

Here are three key tips from Hemmelgarn on starting to question and demystify media messages :

1. Know the Source
Who created the message? Who owns it? Who is the target audience? “Knowing the origins of a message helps us better understand the motive — profit or education — behind the message,” explains Hemmelgarn.

With the big corporate food giants trading organic brands like hot – organic – potatos, understanding who the true messenger is grows increasingly difficult. Kraft owns Boca. Pepsi owns Naked Juice. General Mills rules Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Understanding the underlying source of the information can be the first step in deciphering the message.

2. Know the Persuasive Techniques
Classic textbook advertising tactics still apply, even in our fast-changing web 2.0 world, such as:
Bandwagon: “Everybody’s doing it, therefore you should too.”
Testimonials: “This worked for me personally, therefore it should work for you.”
Emotional: Cute kid, playful kitten, passionate kisses – all aiming to sidestep your brain and connect directly with your heart.
Fear: “If you don’t buy this, disease, doom and gloom, or worse will pervade your life.”
Nostalgia: “This will transport you back to the good old days of yesteryear.”

“By identifying the persuasive techniques used, you can evaluate the message much more objectively,” adds Hemmelgarn.

Do you remember “Two all-beef patties”? McDonalds thinks you do as the company employs classic nostalgia: reviving the 1974 jingle. McDonalds isn’t alone in tapping nostalgia during these troubling economic times. Klondike is reviving the “What Would You Do for a Klondike Bar?” and Burger King wants to remind us, once again, that we can “Have it Your Way.”

3. Know What’s Included – Or Not
“Media messages are carefully scripted, therefore it is important to understand why certain information is included and, more importantly, what information is left out,” Hemmelgarn advises.

Break down the Big Mac jingle. Yes, it lists the ingredients in a manner that we can’t help but ingrain them permanently in our brain. But it leaves out key issues like where these ingredients come from, how they were grown, where and how are they purchased. What’s really in “special sauce” anyway?
We can put all food under the same magnifying glass. No matter whether we are talking about McDonald’s, Burger King, Tyson or fresh corn from the farmer down the road.”
The bottom line is this: We want to know where our food comes from, who produced it, and under what conditions — information typically missing from media messages.

Hemmelgarn takes her message on the road to the Kickapoo Country Fair this July 26-27, held annually on the Organic Valley Family of Farm headquarter grounds in LaFarge, Wisconsin. She will be presenting with Angie Tagtow on these issues with a workshop entitled, “Down to Earth Dieticians: Saving the Planet One Bite at a Time.”

An enthusiastic gardener and cook herself, Hemmelgarn frequently relies on this easy basil-based blend for a dipping sauce to “sell” steamed green beans or summer squash to her family and friends. It makes a delicious dressing to drizzle over leafy green or potato salads as well.

Basil Bliss

1/4 cup organic virgin olive oil
3 T local honey
juice from 1 lg. organic lemon
handful of fresh basil leaves ( from your garden or local farmers’ market)

Put all in the blender and puree till smooth.

Related Links:

Popeye Had It Wrong: Local, Fresh Spinach Packs the Authentic Nutritional Punch
Appetite for Gratitude: How To Eat With Intention
King Corn: Film Reveals How Subsidized Corn is Feeding the Fast-Food Industry

Image credit: Melinda Hemmelgarn

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2 thoughts on “Three Steps to be Food Smart when the Media Mystifies”

  1. This is a great post. It’s unfortunate that media literacy is not as widespread as it should be. I find that most people are so easily swayed by corporate food companies and their advertising, yet so hard to convince by natural health advocates and healthy eaters.

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