Today people are constantly bombarded by new diet trends and information on what is healthy and what is not, much of it contradictory. Within this debate, meat consumption is one of the current topics under scrutiny, with increasing calls for people to eat less. Questions such as “what is the right amount or the right type of meat to eat?” often inspire conflicting or confused answers. Feeding the world sustainably while reducing the impact of industrial meat production are important international challenges faced in ensuring that people have access to sufficient high quality, nutritious food. However, while there is a broad global need to reduce meat consumption, there are important distinctions that must be made regarding this, with no simple, single-diet solution for improving health or global food systems.

Within this complex and developing narrative, how nutritional value is marketed is key to understanding our perceptions of healthy eating. The media is saturated with competing voices, all vying for the attention and trust of the consumer. Nutritional information has become a major selling point for many products. But with research often funded by big brands or targeted charity groups, the reports being published as fact, are often driven by a hidden agenda.

To understand the complexity of brand positioning, we need some understanding of how advertising works and how powerful branding can completely change the perceptions of the food we eat.

Branding health

The promotion and popularity of healthy eating in recent years has generated an influx of brands targeting a health-conscious consumer (think Innocent’s “Taste good. Does good” smoothies and Hippeas’ organic chickpea puffs). However, setting the benchmark for what is considered good for you is a difficult, and perhaps, impossible, task.Thus for some brands, the health claims they make aren’t really supported by what’s in them.

Marketers sometimes talk about a ‘health halo’, a term given to a product or brand implying better health and nutritional values than they deliver. The creation of a health halo allows retailers to appeal to a significant demographic of healthy eaters.

As the popularity for food with health benefits increases, so does the possibility for brands to use this psychology to challenge what is already available. With the use of a health halo, a brand can push against an established – now demonised – mindset (in this case unhealthy eating), and offer an aspirational alternative.

A pertinent example of a brand using nutritional value to drive sales is the fast-food chain Subway. In the 2000s, it exploited a ‘healthy eating’ narrative in its marketing, building the brand around their “Eat fresh” ethos. The company specifically marketed itself as the healthy option relative to other fast food alternatives, and prominently displayed carb and fat content alongside menu items. The tactic worked. Subway’s revenue increased dramatically and research shows that people eating there believed they were consuming fewer calories than people eating at rival fast food brand McDonald’s, even when this wasn’t in fact true.

More recently, McDonald’s have also sought to use the narrative of healthy eating to make a positive impact on their brand image. The company has long been seen as one of the major purveyors of ‘junk’ food, but in recent years, they have increasingly worked to improve their image. Their 2016 advertising campaign, ‘Always Working’, which targets children and parents with messages around reductions in salt, saturated fats and the inclusion of healthy options such as vegetables and water in their Happy Meals, exemplifies this.

The issue with this kind of marketing is that it further complicates an understanding of what it means to eat healthily. Much like labelling something as ‘natural’, ‘healthy’ is a notoriously difficult term to pin down. Placing a single value on a specific food item within a balanced and varied diet is simply not possible without assessing an individual’s whole intake, as well as their personal needs.

Couple this with the skewed results emerging where companies have a significant influence on research, and it becomes easy to see how, as consumers, we can be misled. A high-profile example of this was Coca Cola’s corporate meddling in 2015, which sought to push the agenda that exercise is more important than cutting calories. This does not necessarily mean that a study is wrong, but funding can influence its focus to enable desired conclusions to be drawn. So, determining what’s ‘healthy’ can be more subjective than many people realise.

Misconceptions of meat

Within this complicated discourse, meat is accused of being the villain in modern health issues. A recent poll carried out by IPSOS Mori showed the number of vegans in Britain has more than tripled over the last decade alone. This is endorsed by a study undertaken by Vegetarian Times that estimates roughly 7.3 million US citizens now follow a vegetarian-based diet.

This growing trend has been stimulated by reports asserting that high consumption of processed meats are thought to contribute to a range of health issues, along with ecological and ethical concerns. For example, a key advocacy group for meat-free diets is ‘Veganuary’, who are dedicated to encouraging people to go vegan for the month of January under the premise of “helping the planet and improving personal health.” Many other groups have taken the same stance on removing meat from diets, citing health benefits and environmental factors such as the claims in a 2006 UNFAO report that livestock production is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions – a figure later revised down to 14.5% by a following UNFAO report, itself even seen as an over-estimate by some commentators.

On this still controversial issue where the evidence is far from clear, it is also worth noting that in some studies, when vegetarians are compared to meat eaters that have no risk factors such as obesity or high alcohol consumption, no significant difference in health was found. Further, no negative impact of red meat consumption was found and in one UK study involving 63,000 people, vegetarians were actually found to have a higher incidence of bowel cancer than red meat consumers.

One operative word here may be quality. When looking at the impacts of meat production and consumption, it is vital to distinguish between different types of meat. Grass-fed animals, raised on forage and pasture, make a vital contribution to healthy diets. When they’re also well managed with low stocking numbers, they have a similarly positive impact on farming systems and soil health. Ruminants have the exceptional ability to convert grass into highly nutritional meat and milk, allowing food to be produced from something that humans could never digest.

Research indicates that a reduction of grain-fed and processed meat consumption is an important factor for improving global food sustainability and public health. However, it is important to recognise that many campaigns seeking to reduce meat consumption employ a variety of filters for making their argument. Due to this there are an abundance of misconceptions regarding the health risks associated with meat, with many campaigners losing sight of the fact that reasonable quantities can be an extremely important source of nutrients.

Effective reduction

The divide between meat eaters and meat skeptics is expected to widen. Global meat production has tripled over the last four decades and continues to grow. This is arguably compounded by the messages from many current campaign groups which can mislead consumers about the choices they make when purchasing ‘healthy’ foods.

In order to reduce meat consumption most effectively, it is necessary to categorise the impacts of different types of meat, providing people with the ability to make an informed choice regarding their diet.

An initiative that has been driving positive change in helping people to re-evaluate their diets is Meat Free Mondays. The premise is to remove meat from people’s diet for a single day of the week, encouraging them to learn about different ingredients and recipes. The campaign offers a comprehensive platform to educate society about the ease and value of reducing meat intake for those who are not specifically concerned with the morality of eating meat. Meatless days are gaining popularity worldwide, led by countries such as Canada, Norway and America. In May 2009, the city of Ghent in Belgium became the first city to declare Thursday an official “veggie day”, distributing recipes and a list of vegetarian restaurants.

Rather than using fear to drive a change in meat consumption, these campaigns engage people with positive marketing. An incredibly important and often overlooked factor in promoting the reduction of meat consumption lies in the ability to make the transition fun – encouraging enthusiasm in trying something new rather than couching change in a sense of sacrifice. Traditionally meat-free meals have suffered under the perception that they are bland and tasteless or that it’s not a meal without meat. Projects like the one in Ghent seek to change these attitudes by showing people that vegan and vegetarian options can be just as tasty and nutritious as meals based on meat.

US citizens consume over 1.5 times the average daily protein requirement, so reducing meat consumption is important, but rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach, campaigners’ energy would be better focused on reducing grain-fed and processed meat, alongside encouraging a balanced diet.

Recognising that meat does not have to be entirely removed from diets to improve health or to create a sustainable food system is step one in creating a legitimate argument about the pros and cons of eating animal products. The marketing of both food brands and diets can be manipulative and misleading, but at its best it can also be powerful and play a significant role in stimulating a change in the practices of industrial meat production.

Within the medley of different voices, all claiming to know what is best for our health, as well as the health of the planet, there is a good deal of common sense and wisdom. But the insistent and overly simplistic rhetoric that all meat is bad belies the complexity of the issues at stake. Recognizing the limitations of certain aspects of the current argument to eat less meat, it is necessary to place the conversation in a wider context and work for a more nuanced and sustainable approach.

Photograph: Marco Verch