Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

Last week, the FDA and First Lady, Michelle Obama, proposed several changes to the Nutrition Facts label. It will likely take several years before these changes are put into place, but it is a great place to start.

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Here are some highlights:

1. Calories will be listed more prominently and in a larger font size, making them easier to find.
2. Serving sizes will be adjusted to more accurately depict what is eaten in one sitting. For instance, a 20 oz. soda will be considered 1 serving, as opposed to 2.5, which has been the case in the past.
3. Calories from fat will no longer be listed, allowing us to focus more on types of fat to be avoided (trans fat) rather than fat as a whole.  Science has shown that dietary fat is not the demon it was once made out to be.
4. Added sugars will now be listed. This is a great addition; one that health advocates have been wanting for a long time, and the food industry will likely try to refute. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume less added sugars, but the current food label doesn’t indicate the number of sugars added to foods, only the total grams. This makes determining how much refined sugar the food industry is adding into products very challenging for consumers, especially for foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and dairy products.
5. Vitamin D and Potassium information will now be listed, and listing Vitamin A and C will be voluntary . Vitamin D and Potassium have higher deficiency rates for Americans, making this an important addition.
6. Recommended Daily Values for sodium will go down from 2400 milligrams to 2300, and will go up for fiber from 25 grams to 30. These numbers are being adjusted to better represent what we have learned in the past 20 years about how much we should consume of each of these nutrients.

While these changes are important, and will hopefully help consumers to make healthier food choices, there are many more improvements that could still be made. In fact, the FDA proposed an alternate label that has received much less press.

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In addition to the other changes mentioned, this alternate label also provides information about which nutrients to avoid (trans fat, sodium, added sugars) and which to get more of (vitamin D, fiber, calcium). This label comes much closer to labels advocates have been proposing, such as this label designed by Center for Science in the Public Interest:

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A Nutrition Facts label, such as this, is clearly designed to help consumers make healthier decisions. Of course, the food industry is not in favor of these labels as they might paint a negative picture of their products. Proof of this, is the $50 million they are spending to promote their own voluntary package label, called Facts Up Front.

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The industry calls Facts Up Front “a tool” to help consumers, but as is no surprise, it really just continues to serve the industry’s best interest by allowing companies to highlight positive attributes of a product, without having to warn them about anything negative. Plus, it is confusing. Is 14 grams of sugar a lot or a little? The fiber is high, but so is the saturated fat. Is it healthy or not? This type of labeling also encourages fortification (adding positive nutrients like vitamins and fiber) to make unhealthy products seem more healthy.

Evidence of the confusion over Facts Up Front is further proven in this video from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:


Despite what the food industry will tell you, consumers clearly aren’t learning much about nutrition from “Facts Up Front.” On the contrary, it will likely continue to cause consumers to choose highly processed, cheaply made junk food that appears healthy — just what the industry wants.

These industry efforts are quite contradictory to their consistent claims that eating well is all about “personal responsibility.” How can consumers eat responsibly if they aren’t receiving clear and honest information?

What do you think? Would any of these labels help you to make healthier choices?

Beware: ‘Simply’ is the new ‘Natural’

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Controversy has been building in recent years over the use of the word ‘natural’ on food packaging.  For health conscious consumers – this term is often interpreted as an indicator of minimally processed, healthful ingredients.  For food companies, the word just means dollar signs.

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A 2009 survey  found that while 35 percent of survey participants rated the label ‘organic’ as either important or very important to their purchasing decisions, ‘natural’ scored significantly higher, at 50 percent.  This is particularly alarming, considering the word ‘organic’ actually has a long list of legal definitions, while the word ‘natural’ essentially has none.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to develop a legal definition for ‘natural’ back in the 1990′s, but backed away from the issue after facing what I can only assume was a lot of contradictory advice from health advocates and Big Food. But, that hasn’t stopped the food industry from using the label on everything from sugary drinks to highly processed snack foods.  Why not? They know the word ‘natural’ misleads consumers into thinking they are making a better choice. Put simply, if you slap the word onto your product, you will sell more of it.

Just to prove how ridiculous the use of this word has become, non-profit, Organic Voice, took a satirical jab at the issue through this very humorous video:

While the FDA continues to refuse to act, consumer groups and other health advocates have been filing lawsuits to challenge the use of the word on products deemed anything but natural.  Ben and Jerry’s, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Breyer’s Ice Cream, and Goldfish Crackers are just a few examples of brands targeted for using the label on products containing ingredients that do not exist in nature, such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and synthetic cocoa powder.

Not only are these lawsuits costly, but they create a lot of bad press for the companies, causing many manufacturers to pull the ‘natural’ label just to avoid the trouble.  While this might seem like great news, food companies aren’t ready to completely abandon the concept.  There has to be another word that implies health and wholesomeness, but has even less legal meaning in regards to food.

That word is ‘Simply.’

Next time you visit the grocery store, just take a look. It’s everywhere — cookies, ice cream, chips — highly processed foods that would seldom be deemed as a healthy choice are now carrying this word on their label.  According to reports from the Associated Press, PepsiCo has actually admitted to switching their line of ‘Simply Natural’ Frito-Lay chip products, to just ‘Simply.’  If the FDA hasn’t felt pressured enough to deal with the word ‘Natural’ they certainly won’t be touching any other vague, misleading labels anytime soon.

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Buyers beware!

Caramel Colored Cancer

Caramel — a sweet, sticky confection created by heating sugars to create a characteristic brown color and flavor.

Seems like the perfect ingredient for traditionally caramel colored cola beverages.  Except food companies have added a few extra steps to the recipe.   To make the artificial brown caramel coloring commonly found in the ingredient list of popular soda brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, sugar and heat are still essential.   However, this chemical process adds ammonia and sulfites into the mix, under high pressure and temperatures.

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Sound dangerous?  Turns out it just might be.  These chemical reactions result in the formation of  4 methylimidazole (4-MeI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory rats.  While no such tests have been done on people, it is widely known that chemicals causing cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans.  In fact,  the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011.  The risks were also high enough for the state of California, which now requires that all products sold in the state which would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day to carry a warning label under the state’s Proposition 65 law.

Despite these conclusions, there are still no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, thus making it one of the most widely used food colorings in the country.  In addition to sodas, it can be found in some breads, sauces, crackers, processed meats, and even beer.

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So how much 4-MeI are we consuming? Consumer Reports just released a study  examining levels of 4-MeI in popular brands of soda.  Their research detected varying levels of 4-MeI in all sodas with caramel coloring listed on the ingredient list, with all containing at least 3 micrograms and several exceeding 29 micrograms per 12 ounce can.  Several products including Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Malta Goya contained more than 6 times the requirement for a warning label in California.  Authors of the Consumer Reports’ study urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a maximum level of the substance when it is added to soda or other products, to require labeling when it is added, and to forbid using the word “natural” on the labels of products which contain artificial caramel colors.

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In response to the study, a spokeswoman from PepsiCo (whose products contained some of the higher levels of 4-MeI) told USA Today that the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement. As a result, the company believes that people are not exceeding the intake limit of 29 micrograms a day.

Even if PepsiCo is correct (the spokeswoman conveniently left out how they came up with these details on daily soda consumption), what about those consumers who drink more than the average amount? Don’t they deserve at a least a warning label?  Or couldn’t PepsiCo just reduce the amount of 4-MeI in their product altogether? After Proposition 65 was passed in California, Coke did just that, leaving their products with some of the lowest levels of the carcinogen in the Consumer Reports study.

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Though the FDA still believes there is no harm in consuming products which contain caramel coloring, the recent study has prompted the organization to take another look, and I applaud them for doing so.   Unfortunately, until the FDA takes action, the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their ingredient list.

The Big G Stands for GMO’s: The Social Media Strategy that Lead to GMO-Free Cheerios

In 2012, General Mills developed a social media campaign encouraging consumers to visit their Facebook page and share “What Cheerios Means to You.”  They even designed a special app so users could turn any phrase into the cereal’s iconic font and yellow background, with the signature Cheerio dotting every “I.”

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Unfortunately for General Mills, the campaign generated exactly the opposite of the “feel-good” messages the company was hoping for.  In response to General Mills $1.1 million contribution to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign to label GMO’s in California, consumers covered the Facebook page with anti-GMO messages such as “GMO’s, No Thanks”, “Deception”, and even “Poison.”

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Of course, General Mills wasted no time in removing the app, but the damage had been done.  Thanks in part to the GMOInside, a coalition demanding a non-GMO food supply, the Facebook comments continued, even after the app was removed and the campaign ended.  But what happened next, turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.

Despite General Mills stance that GMO’s are perfectly safe, and their lobbying efforts against state level GMO labeling initiatives, the company apparently still took this consumer backlash to heart.  On January 2nd, General Mills announced that original Cheerios had been reformulated to be GMO-free.

The predominant ingredient in Cheerios was never in question, as there are no genetically modified oats, however, the sugar and cornstarch used in the product were assumed to be made from genetically modified crops.  The company now claims that they were able to source both ingredients without the use of GMO’s and will be labeling the product as such very soon.  Though we can’t be certain that the Facebook ambush is the only reason for the change, General Mills openly admitted that their decision stemmed from consumer demand.

Pressuring change from food companies via social media is a relatively new tactic, but it seems to be working quite well.  An article released in the New York Times last month described the many ways consumers are using social media to convince companies to reconsider ingredients, change the processing of their products, and alter their food labels.  Never before have consumers had such easy access to the top dogs of major food corporations, and several companies are actually starting to take note of the criticism.

Consumers still have a lot of questions for General Mills after their announcement.  If the company really cares, why aren’t the other Cheerios varieties being reformulated?  Better yet, why not make all General Mills cereals GMO-free? Will a third-party be confirming that the product is completely non-GMO before the labels start to appear?  If General Mills believes that consumers want GMO-free products, and are willing to make the necessary steps to create them, why are they fighting so hard to keep these products from being labeled?

If this first step, which even General Mills admitted didn’t take much effort, helps the company acquire new customers and increase profits, there is no question that the company will address these questions to meet consumer demand.  Social media sure is proving itself as an important tactic in the game of food reform.

Tis the Season for Marketing Coke to Kids

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What is the first sign that the holidays are around the corner? The first decorations going up in the shops and supermarkets? When the radio stations start playing holiday-themed music?

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For many of us, it’s the moment when we see that familiar fleet of twinkling Coca‑Cola trucks make their way across our television screen to bring light and joy (and plenty of sugary Coke!) to the masses.  Though the Christmas themed trucks are a fairly recent tradition, Coca-Cola has been associating their products with Santa Claus and the holiday season since the 1930’s.  Which is why it seems ridiculous that the company claims not to market their products to children.

Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company released a frenzy of media activity surrounding their global plan to tackle obesity.  This included a promise not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere in the world.  Coca-Cola had already claimed to have banned marketing to the under-12 demographic in the United States.

While Coke received some praise for these efforts, most health advocates weren’t buying it.  After the release of the campaign, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff spotted an ad from Coke in the June 17th edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which stated:

For over 50 years we’ve adhered to a company policy that prohibits advertising soft drinks to children… we’ve recently extended this policy to include all forms of media, including broadcast, print, the web and beyond.

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Here is one of Coke’s latest forms of broadcast media, which by the terms of their policy, they must believe does not appeal children:

Does Coke honestly think children under 12 aren’t going to be enticed by an animated commercial about Santa Claus? Of course they don’t.  On the contrary, this is the perfect example of a commercial Coke knows WILL target children, but the company could easily make a claim that it is designed for older children and adults.  While many adults do enjoy Santa, you cannot deny that the jolly guy in the red suit and the magic of the North Pole predominantly appeals to children.

The holiday season also provides the perfect environment for pushing Coke’s family of polar bears in their advertising.  In fact, the following was found in Coke’s online store as part of their holiday gift guide:

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Don’t branded toys count as marketing? While Coke might be able to claim that this stuffed bear is made for adults, the company actually goes out of its way to RECOMMEND the toy for “little ones” age 3 and up.  Wouldn’t this fit that part about ‘beyond’ in their ban on child targeted marketing?

Even the packaging itself is being designed in a way that could appeal to children.  For the last few years, Coke has used the holiday season to sell ornament-shaped bottles of their products, once again starring cartoon versions of their famous family of polar bears.

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The food industry spends nearly 2 billion per year in the U.S. marketing to kids, advertising mostly unhealthy products.  Based on the media coverage, it might appear that the Coca-Cola company isn’t a part of this public health problem, but their actions continue to show otherwise.  If Coke wants to use Christmas to sell their products, they are entitled to that.  But, claiming that this marketing isn’t used to persuade children to associate Coke with the happiness and joy of the holiday season is shameful.

A Positive Spin on Food Marketing to Kids

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids.

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According to PHA’s website:

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to take advantage of the power and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby to help convey messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sesame Street characters could be showing up on produce as early as mid-2014.

In her statement, the First Lady cited a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine conducted by researchers at Cornell University. Researchers gave children a choice between eating an apple, a cookie, or both and most kids chose the cookie. Not surprisingly, when the researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples and let the kids select again, the number of kids who chose the apple nearly doubled.

Most often, we see food companies enticing kids with characters on junk food products like sugary cereals and snacks.  Massive marketing budgets allow the food manufacturers to do this, and it works.

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Finally, these same marketing techniques will be used to help parents, instead of undermining them, making it easier to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies.  How great will it be to see beloved children’s characters like Big Bird and Elmo promoting apples and bananas instead of real fruit imposters like Pop-tarts and Popsicles?

Will efforts like this be enough to counteract the billions spent on marketing junk food to children?  Probably not at first, but it is a nice step towards leveling the playing field.  While policies to curb the relentless marketing of unhealthy products have been stymied by Big Food lobbyists, I have to applaud creative ideas like this that can work in congruence with future policy efforts.

Some food policy experts, like Marion Nestle, question the ethicality of marketing to children in any capacity – even if it’s for products we know are good for them.  Studies have shown that children are unable to distinguish marketing from entertainment until at least age 8.  But if marketing such as this poses no harm, and actually serves to benefit children, shouldn’t we be all for it? What do you think?

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A Face-Lift for Food Labels

Food labels are confusing.  They have been for decades (the last major updates were made in 1990), and often do more to mislead and confuse consumers than they do to help them make healthful choices.  But, it looks like some members of congress are finally trying to do something about it.

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The Food Labeling Modernization Act was introduced this month by three congressional Democrats: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ).  They argue that “new labeling requirements are needed in order to deliver the consistent, clear information that Americans need to combat the obesity crisis and make healthier choices.”

Some of the changes included in the bill are:

  • Whole Grain. Any product labeled as “whole grain”, “whole wheat”, “multi-grain” or “wheat” will have to list the amount of grain (as a percentage of total grains) on the label.
  • Serving Size. Any product which contains an amount of food reasonably consumed on a single occasion (i.e. single serving potato chips, candy bars, etc.) must be labeled as one serving and the nutrition information must be based on the entire package.  Currently, if calorie, fat or sugar content is too high, companies can label the product as more than one serving to reduce the numbers.
  • “Natural”. The use of the term “natural” will no longer be allowed on foods containing ingredients made through a non-traditional chemical process.  Examples include high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and maltodextrin.
  • Artificial Sweeteners.  There is currently no requirement for companies to disclose the use of artificial (non-caloric) sweeteners.  Though they are listed in the ingredients list, it is usually by their chemical name (sucralose, aspartame, etc.) which many consumers cannot identify as an artificial sweetener.  This bill would require full disclosure on the nutrition facts panel.
  • “Healthy”. The use of the term “healthy” will only be permitted on grain-based foods if at least half of the grains are whole.
  • Added Sugars. Many foods, like fruit and dairy products, contain both naturally occurring and added refined sugar.  However, food manufactures are currently only required to label the total amount of sugar in the product.  This bill would take out the guess work for consumers looking to avoid added sugar.
  • Sugar. Nutrition labels will have to include the percent recommended for daily consumption for total sugars and added sugars, which currently are excluded.
  • Caffeine. Companies will have to disclosure the amount of caffeine in any food or beverage which contains more than 10 milligrams.  Considering food manufacturers have been adding the stuff to everything from waffles to Cracker Jacks, this could be very helpful for consumers, especially parents.
  • Front of Pack Labels. These labels are meant to be a quick nutrition guide for shoppers in the grocery aisle, however, most are created by the food companies themselves, so they highlight the healthier qualities of the food (i.e. 100% DV vitamin C) and omit the less healthy properties (high in sugar.)  This bill would require uniform guidelines for all food companies, creating less confusion for consumers trying to make healthy choices.

So, how likely is this bill to get passed? If history is any indication, not very.

In 2009, Congress directed the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to conduct a study on Front-of-package labeling and recommend a standard labeling system.   However, the FDA backed off of efforts to implement it after the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) created and began implementing the industry’s own new labeling system in 2011.

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The industry program, Facts Up Front, has been showing up on food packages for the last four years.  Not surprisingly, the system includes an opportunity for companies to highlight positive qualities of a product (usually fortified nutrients — like fiber and calcium), making the system more of a marketing tactic than anything that could be perceived as informative.  Companies would never willingly agree to full disclosure about their food products because they know health conscious consumers wouldn’t buy them.

Case in point: The GMA’s response to the new Food Label Modernization bill:

Based on our preliminary analysis of this legislation, we are very concerned that it could have serious unintended consequences on a variety of products and will only serve to confuse consumers. GMA agrees with and supports federal laws requiring food labels to be truthful and non-misleading. There is a robust regulatory system in place to ensure the accuracy of information found on a food label. The accuracy of this information is further supported by the ongoing commitment by food companies to communicate with consumers in a way that is clear and accurate.

Whenever the food industry starts showing concern over “consumer confusion”, they usually mean the exact opposite.  If consumers are given too much information about the contents of their unhealthy products, it is likely they will make a different choice, and that terrifies the food industry.  The “serious unintended consequences” the food industry is worried about are their sales.

If implemented, this bill could help create a more accurate picture of what is contained in packaged foods.  Surely some heavy lobbying (and possibly even a media campaign to convince consumers that these changes are harmful) will undoubtedly kill the bill, but it does leave me feeling hopeful.  Proposing this type of legislation brings attention to the issue which is, at minimum, a very good place to start.