The Risk of Stroke and Dementia Masked by Simple Colors

How product branding can make a potential toxin seem less toxic.

Posted Apr 21, 2017

Photo by the author
Source: Photo by the author

Call it what you will, sugar plays a huge role in our lives.  From 1, 6 fructose diphosphate and its essential metabolic role in the Krebs cycle to the ubiquitous "high fructose corn sugar" that flavors—for better or worse—our world.  Sugar is all around us.  And where there's sugar, there are sugar substitutes.  

Sugar substitutes have dominated the sweetener category for a long time and have leveraged their 'very low calorie' advantages for the well and ill. New data published in the medical journal Stroke now offers a startling conclusion: artificially sweetened soft drink consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke and dementia.The study looked at almost 3,000 people for 10 years. But these data and many curious health concerns are cloaked behind something that might be even more powerful than science. It's the magic of branding.

Here are three that you certainly know: Equal, Sweet'n Low and Splenda. The names conger up lovely thoughts and images of equality, sweetness (and you can cheat) and dietary splendor! But there's something even more interesting and perhaps even more basic. It's the colors that have been chosen. Light blue, soft pink and yellow. 

Think about it. What topic owns these three colors (other than sugar substitutes)?

Babies! Sweet, innocent babies.

Blue for a boy. Pink for a girl. And yellow, if you don't know. So, here we have the clash of two worlds!!  The purity and innocence of a new born baby with the complexity of sugar substitutes. And what is one of the more common ways a sugar substitute makes their way to our food? A lovely little packet. And there you have it. Sweet'n Low, Equal and Splenda as BABY BLANKETS! There could be nothing as sweet, safe and less threatening! Pink, blue and yellow. Three colors that are linked to life and birth itself!

But there's a little be more to the evolution of this category. It's the emergence of Truvia. This product is derived from the stevia plant. But where do you position another brand and pick the "next baby blanket"? Well, as it turns out, Truvia is positioned—exactly upon the scientific and consumer concerns—as natural! And where does color theory take us? Green! And of course, it's a nice soft green—kinda like a baby blanket! 

So, science and psychology compete for mindshare and marketshare. It's a brutal battleground and as recent data suggest, it might be more dangerous than we ever imagined.

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