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Food Labeling Frauds and Other Dumb Choices

November 13, 2009

Announced earlier this year as a breakthrough in food labeling for healthier eating, the food industry’s “Smart Choices” labeling program was recently shelved, after massive controversy over labels that graced the front packaging of several fatty, sugary, and nutrient-devoid foods that were, surprise, made by the companies who funded the labeling program. Fruit Loops, Fudgsicles, margarine, mayonnaise, and frozen meals and packaged foods containing up to a quarter of a day’s dose of salt were among the food makers’ idea of “healthy” food choices.

Looking at the list of industry’s “smart” choices, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health told the New York Times, “These are horrible choices.”

Other recent food marketing claims have also fared poorly. For example:

  • The FDA found “serious violations” of federal law in General Mills marketing claims on Cheerios boxes which the regulator says suggests Cheerios are equivalent to a cholesterol-lowering drug.
  • Dannon and General Mills have been sued for suggesting that their yogurt is a digestive aid.
  • Snapple was charged with consumer fraud for advertising its artificially flavored drinks as “all natural” (somehow evading the fact that something with artificial flavors, by definition, cannot also be “all natural”).
  • The FTC found Kellogg’s violated federal law by falsely claiming that its Frosted Mini Wheats cereal could boost children’s attentiveness by 20%. FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz stated, “We tell consumers that they should deal with trusted national brands, so it’s especially important that America’s leading companies are more ‘attentive’ to the truthfulness of their ads….”

Food industry marketing campaigns using dubious health claims and straining scientific credibility is nothing new. But even John Harvey Kellogg, promoter of corn-flake enemas, likely never imagined his breakfast foods would be marketed to protect children against a potentially deadly virus. But this month, as swine flu fears raged, Kellogg’s was pressured to drop a giant banner on its Rice Krispies cereal boxes that boasted the sugary rice pops could “support your child’s immunity.” The company caved after the San Francisco City Attorney formally challenged the marketing in a letter to Kellogg’s stating that the claim could “mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity, leaving parents less likely to take more productive steps to protect their children’s health.”

Recent studies have shown that food advertising to children is ubiquitous, and that the least nutritious foods are the most heavily marketed to kids. A Yale University study found that “The average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year on television alone, almost all for cereals with the worst nutrition rankings.” The study also found that only 8% of cereals marketed to children meet the required sugar limits for inclusion in the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and not one meets the nutrition standards required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.

While food industry’s duplicitous labeling is inexcusable, even some well-intended food ratings systems seem unable to provide consistently sensible advice. The otherwise useful and well researched Good Guide uses a flawed, nutrient-centered approach for its food ratings, resulting in many odd “healthy” choices. For example, in its baby foods category, conventionally-grown (ie, pesticide sprayed) carrot baby food rates higher than organic banana baby food, presumably due to the high vitamin levels in carrots. Similarly, a fried, sugar-sweetened sweet potato chip merits a top “healthy” choice rating of 10, despite the added sugar (aren’t sweet potatoes sweet enough?) and having more than half its calories come from fat.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 6, 2009 6:24 pm

    Mmm…Fruit Loops…they were always my favorite candy masquerading as breakfast cereal…mmm

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