In March The Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report entitled Food Labeling Chaos.
The report outlined in detail the myriad ways packaged food companies mislead consumers through vague, false, meaningless health claims, and difficult to decipher nutritional panels. The FDA took notice, and since then has issued a number of warning letters to companies making the claims.
Also recently the first lady announced a new commitment to ending childhood obesity in a generation through a renewed focus on exercise and nutrition. One way she plans to do this is to make sure that consumers get reliable nutritional information from food packages. She’s working with industry to rally them to the cause of making the information on food labels more clear for consumers. After all, how can our population hope to be healthier if we are not given reliable health information that will allow us to make smarter choices?
At this point, the first lady is trying to bring the industry to the table voluntarily. It’s a good starting point, but it’s likely that any voluntary engagement will need to be bolstered by a hefty does of regulation. After all, when the food industry gets together to come up with its own packaging schemes we end up with atrocities like the Orwellian Smart Choices program. You know, the labeling scheme under which Froot Loops were considered a smart choice.
For its part, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is one of the government agencies in charge of regulating such claims, has signaled a greater willingness to regulate than under past administrations. As evidenced by the warning letters sent to industry. But it remains to be seen whether these letters will translate into actual regulation. Food Politics expert, Marion Nestle, doesn’t think so. She thinks industry will turn the food labeling cause into a First Amendment fight that the FDA won’t want to engage in.
In the interim between now and the time that regulation comes, it’s good to know when you’re being duped, so here’s a run down of the types of labels to watch out for, and the different categories under which they are likely to occur.
Structure Function Claims: Structure function claims are statements about a food’s ability to cure or prevent disease and are one of the most commonly used misleading claims on food packages. The FDA regulates such claims on dietary supplements, but has not established rules for structure/function claims on food. This means companies are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want. Occasionally a company is slapped down by a warning letter, public outcry, or a lawsuit by someone outside of the government, but usually it’s up to the consumer to view such claims with a critical eye.
Rice Crispies Boost Immunity – Last summer, Kellogg rolled out new artwork on its Rice Crispies (and Cocoa Crispies) boxes. The new box carried a giant banner saying that it helps support your child’s immunity. The basis for this claim was higher amounts of added vitamins A, B, C, and E. It took a letter from the San Francisco city attorney asking for substantiation of the claim for the company to back away from it. With no help from the FDA.
Pom Wonderful Fights Prostate Cancer – This ubiquitous pomegranate juice product claimed that it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and help fight off prostate cancer. The FDA slapped the company with a warning letter.
Diamond Walnuts Shrink Tumors – This product made packaging claims that it can inhibit tumor growth, protect against stroke and help treat depression due to the presence of omega-3s. This claim earned Diamond a warning letter from the FDA.
A good egg, but not that good – While we’re on the subject of Omega-3 claims, almost all egg packages imply that the Omega-3 present in eggs will bestow upon the eater health benefits. Any specific claims to this effect are entirely bogus. In fact, the FDA has specifically denied a petition for a qualified health claim for omega-3 eggs. But industry gets around it simply by including the words Omega-3 prominently on the egg cartons, without making any specific claims. Do you think consumers pick up on these subliminal cues? You bet they do. Next time you’re in the egg aisle, take a look.
Cheerios Lower Cholesterol – A claim on General Mill’s Cheerios had stated that the cereal can lower your cholesterol four percent in six weeks. The claim was in use for more than two years before the FDA sent a warning letter to the company in May 2009 stating that such claims would make the product a drug under federal law.
Crystal Light Boosts Immunity – Crazy I know that a drink comprised mostly of sugar and chemicals can make you healthier. According to Food Labeling Chaos, Kraft Foods’ Crystal Light Immunity Diet Beverage claims that vitamins A, C, E help maintain a healthy immune system. As far as I know, the FDA has not challenged this claim.
Minute Maid Active orange juice protects joints – This also from Food Labeling Chaos. It’s the juice’s presence of glucosamine HCI. But studies have shown that this type of glucosamine, most often added to beverages, is not effective in relieving joint pain.
Nestle Juicy Juice Makes Your Kid’s Brain Bigger – Late last year, the FDA sent Nestle a warning letter about its claim that its juicy juice line of drinks makes structure/function helps support brain development in children under two years old.
Nestle also got into trouble for the non-Stucture/Function implication that the products are 100 percent juice when they are actually juice blends with added flavors. Also the product makes a “no sugar added” claim, which are not allowed on products intended for children under two years of age because appropriate dietary levels have not been established for children in this age range.
Improper Portion Listings: Companies often are able to tout their products as low sodium, low sugar, or low calorie, solely because the number of portions listed on the container is nowhere near the amount people actually eat.
Healthy Choice Salt Lick – The Healthy Choice Minestrone Soup sold in a microwaveable bowl is said to contain about two servings, but it is clearly something to be consumed by one person in a single sitting. This unrealistic serving size allows the company to claim only half of the amount of sodium that the soup contains. If the label had to disclose all the sodium for the entire package, it would no longer be eligible to identify the soup as a “healthy choice” due to the presence of large amounts of sodium.
Sugars: You might notice the term “lightly sweetened” on breakfast cereals. This is an industry term unregulated by the FDA. Watch out for this one because a “lightly sweetened” cereal can actually be laden with added sugar.
Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats Barely Frosted – According to the package, the frosted mini wheats are “lightly sweetened” but according to Food Labeling Chaos, they are actually about 20 percent sugar by weight.
Fats: You’ve probably seen the term, “no trans fats” on various food items – from cookies, to chips, to frozen foods. What this doesn’t let you know is how much saturated fat the product might contain.
Gorton’s Crispy Battered Fish Fillets – The verbiage states “0 grams trans-fats” on the package, yet the product contains 23 percent of the daily value of saturated fat. High for a single serving.
Whole Grains: Companies often tout the inclusion of whole grains on labels for breads, cookies, crackers, and other baked goods. In fact, there is no federal guideline for how much whole grains have to be included in the food to qualify for this claim. Often, packaged foods making this claim are heavy on the processed white flour with only the tiniest amounts of whole grains included.
Keebler’s “Multi-Grain” Crackers Contain More Sugar than Whole Wheat – The label of Keebler’s Town House Multigrain Crackers says that they are made with “toasted whole wheat,” but the small print in the ingredient list indicates that the product contains more sugar than whole wheat. One could wonder why crackers, a savory food, need sugar at all, but that’s another subject.
Fruits and Vegetables: Often, in an attempt to make a processed food product sound healthier than it is, a food company will try to convince consumers that there are actual fruits and vegetables in the food product, when in fact, it’s made up of simple starches, sugars, sodium, and chemicals.
“Chicken” and “Broccoli” – Knorr Lipton’s Chicken Flavored Broccoli Pasta Side Dish package indicates that broccoli is a major ingredient (let’s not even talk about that “chicken flavor”) yet, the nutrition label shows more salt than broccoli.
Now that you are armed with information about the ways that food companies mislead consumers into thinking what they are buying is healthier than it actually is, perhaps you will find yourself reading labels more carefully. But there’s a better way to ensure that the food you buy is as nutritious as possible. Stay away from packaged foods altogether. Shop the perimeter and buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, whole grains and beans, and unflavored, unprocessed dairy products. Only then will you know that the food you are eating is actually food.
In writing this article I relied heavily on the report, Food Labeling Chaos (referenced above) by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and also the excellent Wall Street Journal Health Blog.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.
Image: Clean Wal-Mart