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!

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Junk Food Industry

When I first decided to become a Registered Dietitian, I was very excited about the opportunity to join the team of nutrition experts that represent the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I assumed that the credential (and the professional organization behind it) would provide me with the skills and education necessary to help improve the nation’s food environment through public policy and research. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Instead, I find myself struggling to defend my credential, and wanting to distance myself from the very organization I was supposed to be depending on for guidance.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Comprised primarily of Registered Dietitians, the organization is supposed to help advance the profession through research, advocacy and education.

However, last January, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and blogger for Eat Drink Politics, unveiled a report disclosing important details about the relationships between the AND and food companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. This report provided abundant evidence that partnerships with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to communicate clear and accurate nutrition messages.

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Americans are already bombarded with deceptive claims and misleading information regarding nutrition and health.  Most don’t realize that much of the advice they receive stems from the economic interests of food companies rather than actual nutrition science.   Big Food is not in business to protect or contribute to good health. These companies exist to make profits. Partnering with health organizations like the AND is just another means to put a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthful, and provides a false sense of trust to the public that the companies actually care about the health of their customers.

According to Simon’s report, the AND claims,

In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.

But, when food companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (known for their junk food products) sponsor the Academy’s conferences and contribute continuing education to Registered Dietitians, it is impossible for the RD credential not to lose integrity in the eyes of the public.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is no bias in the information and research that is presented. You can’t expect an organization accepting funding from fast food companies to tell the public to eat less fast food. Instead, they use messages like, ‘all foods fit’ or ‘everything in moderation’, that continue to confuse consumers.

It is truly unfortunate that the reputation of a credential we have worked so hard for (and deeply value) has become tarnished thanks to some measly monetary contributions by Big Food.  Thankfully, I discovered an organization a few months ago comprised of over 4,000 Registered Dietitians, health professionals and conscious consumers that not only feel as I do, but are striving for change. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was created by several RD’s, working hard to convince the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to cut ties with food companies that contribute to our nation’s poor health. In fact, just a few days ago, the organization released a petition, which will be formally presented to the Academy at their next Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October.

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Even if you are not a Registered Dietitian, please consider signing on to this petition. Nutrition professionals, the clients we serve, and the public deserve nutrition information and education free of bias and influence from junk food companies.