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Truth, lies and television advertising

health and fitness Updated: Sep 11, 2010 23:26 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Just when I thought no one would take television advertisements seriously, a 10-year-old killed himself just because his favourite health supplement did not add inches to his height as promised in the ad.

Though this is an extreme instance of how seriously people take what they see and hear on the idiot box, the fact is that most people passively accept whatever ads claim. But with advertisers increasing selling products on misleading health claims, believing everything you see can damage a lot more than just your pocket.

You have breakfast cereals in various permutations and combinations, promising essential carbohydrates and vitamins to see you through the day. If you give it some thought, you'll realise that you get a more potent nutrition boost from freshly-prepared whole wheat chapattis and a multivitamin. Yet, if you ask someone what constitutes a healthy breakfast and they are most likely to say milk and muesli.

Unlike health drinks and breakfast cereals that promise to make you bigger, sharper and stronger, most advertisers withhold information.

We've all seen advertisements promoting cholesterol-free instant noodles, chips, nut mixes and cooking oils. What the advertisers don't mention is that cholesterol only comes from foods from animal sources, such as meats, fish, milk, eggs, cheese, and butter. Chips and instant noodles are fried — yes, even the whole wheat 'atta' noodles are 'bathed in oil' before being packaged — in vegetable oils, which may not have cholesterol but are packed with calories that add to weight. Worse, the oil may contain other fats that are block up arteries just as efficiently as cholesterol does.

All advertisements suggest the right choice is to go for products that are sugarfree, wholegrain and/or low in calories, fat, cholesterol, starch and carbohydrates. What they do not mention is what the product is finally offers, which is often nothing more than empty calories. Fruit-flavoured yoghurt, for example, may have calcium but it is also loaded with sugar and preservatives. It's healthier to eat an apple and a bowl of natural yoghurt.

Making food choices based on television advertising results in a very imbalanced diet, reported a study in the June issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. After comparing the nutritional content of food choices influenced by television to nutritional guidelines, the study found that a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of advertised foods would contain 25 times the recommended servings of sugars and 20 times the recommended servings of fat, but less than half the needed servings of vegetables, dairy, and fruits.

In fact, hidden sugars and fat are so high in advertised foods that, on average, eating just one of the food items provides more than three times the recommended servings for sugars and two and a half times the serving for fat for the whole day. The study said advertised foods are high in disease-causing saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium; and low in health-protecting nutrients such as iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, carbohydrates, calcium, vitamin E, magnesium, copper, potassium, fibre, and vitamin D.

Though some consumer groups in India are demanding television advertisements targeting children be banned, a less radial approach would be to whet advertisements for information withheld. Till then, you just have to take all advertisement claims with a liberal pinch of salt.