Are processed, junk foods losing the consumer vote?

The well-known advice from Michael Pollan, “you can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day” just might be helping to turn the tide on the dominance of the junk food industry.  Though the power of Big Food in the United States has often seemed indestructible, sales are declining for many of the biggest players, including the Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.  Increasing consumer interest in food with simpler ingredients has led sectors like natural and organic to outpace more processed categories.

Just this week, the New York Times reported on the major sales decline for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals:

The drop-off has accelerated lately, especially among those finicky millennials who tend to graze on healthy options.

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In August, McDonald’s reported it’s weakest monthly sales results in more than a decade. In this Nasdaq article, the author makes a hard-hitting point about American’s desire to eat healthier food:

Generations ago, Americans accepted the world they were given without much question.  It is hardly surprising that they put McDonalds food in their mouths, trusting it not to hurt them – they did the same thing with cigarettes – but times do change. Today’s consumer goes out to eat with an active desire to not contribute to his or her own death.

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Coca-cola sales have also been dropping. Food Navigator reports:

Concerns about sugar and calories have caused consumers to re-evaluate the amount of soda in their diet.

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Sales of frozen meals have also seen a noticeable decline.  Even brands such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers have all reported losses, despite their healthy sounding names.  Bloomberg reports:

Mothers are more concerned about the healthiness of frozen meals than any food item other than soda and sweet snacks.

Making things worse is the “long and scary” list of ingredients in frozen meals, which include preservatives like potassium sorbate, calcium propionate, sodium tripolyphosphate and sorbic acid

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Does this mean that consumers desire to eat healthy is the only reason these companies are losing sales? Definitely not. There are a multitude of issues each company is facing, but the desire for less processed, healthful foods is certainly an important factor affecting consumer decisions.

While McDonald’s sales are rapidly dropping, profits for companies like Chipotle, which focus on healthier, fresher and higher quality ingredients, are skyrocketing. And Big Food companies have been rapidly swooping up brands in the natural and organic food categories, as sales for these items have been growing rapidly over the last ten years.  This week, General Mills officials announced their acquisition of Annie’s Inc., a company devoted to organic and natural products. And upon slumping sales for the Campbell Soup company, CEO Denise Morrison, was quoted as saying, “the company will focus future acquisitions in North America on targets in the health and wellness category.”  Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of high-salt foods, and Campbell’s products have long been a major culprit.

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While it is impossible to predict whether or not these trends will continue, the power we have as health-conscious consumers is becoming more evident.  Michael Pollan is right. In addition to voting for sound food policies for an improved food environment, you can also vote with your fork!  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it, with the opposite also being true.

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The Trouble with Happiness

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Last month, a group of mom’s gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company stop predatory marketing to kids.  While they don’t like to admit it, the company uses a variety of strategies to target young people.  In school, your child might receive a visit from Ronald McDonald to learn about bullying.  At home, your child might see a TV commercial about their favorite toys now available in Happy Meals.  And have you seen HappyMeal.com?

In the new documentary, Fed Up, the filmmakers show McDonald’s executive, Shelly Rosen, stating:

Ronald McDonald never sells to children — he informs and inspires through magic and fun.


Not surprisingly, this boldfaced lie has been getting roars of laughter from audiences across the country, but her statement illustrates an even bigger problem with the way McDonald’s and other junk food companies market to children.  As our country stands in the middle of an obesity crisis, isn’t teaching kids to associate unhealthy foods with happiness a bit dangerous to their health? Of course it is. But, it’s also profitable.


One of the moms standing at the doors of McDonald’s headquarters, was Leah Segedie, a health advocate and blogger, who once struggled with an eating disorder. When she told McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, that her childhood association of Happy Meal’s and happiness contributed to her disordered eating patterns, and subsequent weight gain, he laughed at her.

McDonald’s isn’t the only food company known for associating it’s products with happiness. This marketing strategy has also worked well for Coca-Cola.

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The soda giant claims they never target children with marketing, yet they ran this commercial during last year’s super bowl.


Not only does it convey the message that Coke equals happiness, but also that children should be rewarded with sugar.  Never mind that the little boy in the commercial would have to run for a full hour and 15 minutes before he would burn off the calories in just one 20 ounce Coke.

Junk food companies want you to think these “happiness” campaigns are just a harmless tactic for promoting products, but they may also teach kids to start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods.  When you are feeling down, for instance, it’s okay to reach for a cheeseburger to make you feel better.  When you are feeling proud of yourself for an accomplishment, go ahead and reward yourself with a sugary drink.  Just the name “Happy Meal” can easily convince a young child that burgers and fries will make them happy.

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With food companies spending nearly 2 billion per year targeting children, our nation’s kids are being bombarded with messages that encourage unhealthy habits. It’s bad enough that these messages have the power to impact children’s food preferences, but they can also influence lifelong eating behaviors, as was the case for Leah Segedie.

If Big Food was really interested in our happiness, they would stop putting profits ahead of children’s health.

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.

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.

Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

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Does junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals mislead consumers into thinking they are making a healthier choice?

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The federal government is about to find out.

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate how easily consumers are fooled into believing that fortified junk food (snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins added artificially) can replace real nutritious food.

Initially used to address national public health concerns, the proper use of fortification can be beneficial to consumers.  Since the addition of folic acid in grain-based foods, the rate of neural tube defects has dropped by 25% in the United States.  And the fortification of salt with iodine has drastically reduced iodine deficiency and goiter prevalence.

But, over the last few decades, food manufacturers have managed to exploit the process.

Vitamin C is added to fruit snacks to make the products appear equivalent to whole fruit.  Minimal levels of whole grains are added to crackers just to meet the FDA’s standards for labeling a product as whole grain.   And antioxidants are loaded into soda and other sweetened drinks to distract consumers from the high levels of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or artificial sweeteners.  Why do food manufacturers do this? The answer is simple. To confuse and mislead health-conscious consumers so companies can sell more products.

Known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, the FDA actually has a regulation that discourages this type of behavior.  The rule states that just because a product is low in fat, cholesterol, or sodium (like a jelly bean) doesn’t mean the company can place claims on the label touting the healthfulness of the product.

The rule states:

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

As you can see, this rule strongly discourages companies from fortifying foods with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, protein and fiber for the sole purpose of making health claims.

But, they do it anyway.  Take one look down the aisle of a grocery store and it is pretty obvious that the ‘jelly bean rule’ is seldom enforced.

Slowly but surely, however, consumer health advocates and the FDA are taking notice of the misuse of fortification to sell products.  Over the last few years, several companies have faced expensive class-action lawsuits due to their avoidance of the FDA’s rule.

  • In 2011, Kellogg’s settled a class-action suit after claiming that two of their cereal products, Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, supported healthy immunity due to the addition of several vitamins.
  • Though a lawsuit was never filed, Hershey’s received a warning letter in 2012 from the FDA for nutritional claims about calcium and other vitamins in their chocolate syrup.
  • And this year, Coca-Cola will be facing a class-action suit for their Vitamin Water products which contain health claims about healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk for eye disease.  Never mind that the product name alone conveys a message of health despite the fact that the products contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners – and not much else.

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The FDA’s proposed study will use a web-based survey to collect information from 7,500 adults.  Participants will view food labels and answer questions about their perceptions of the products.  With any luck, this research will add to existing data which shows that  consumers are often misled by fortified foods with health claims.  This type of evidence could further lead to stricter policies surrounding the practice, labeling, and marketing of fortified products. But, not without a fight from those powerful food companies.  Like any other type of regulation that prevents Big Food from continuing the status quo, heavy lobbying will ensue.

If you agree with the importance of this study, you can submit comments to the FDA for the next 12 days here.  While it might take awhile before we see any changes, this is certainly a great place to start.

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.

5 Misleading Messages in Coke’s Latest Anti-Obesity Ad

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Recently, the Coca-Cola company unleashed a frenzy of media activity surrounding the company’s global plan to tackle obesity.  Their attempts have been dismal, including several television ads that divert attention from the role of sugary drinks on the obesity epidemic, instead focusing on consumers’ responsibility to engage in more physical activity.

Their latest ad (below) is full of deceptive claims about calories and the physical activity required to burn them off.

Here are 5 of the misleading messages that immediately caught my attention:

1. The beginning of the commercial explains that you will need to spend 5 minutes doing each of the activities in the ad to burn the calorie amounts displayed on the screen.  If you happen to miss this message (which would be easy to do), one might assume that you would burn 7 calories giving a quick hug, or 12 calories zipping up a dress.  You won’t.

2. The commercial  implies that the activities you do everyday, like getting dressed or shouting at someone,  will quickly add up and burn off  any of the measly calories you gain from drinking the refined sugar in Coke, ultimately suggesting that burning calories is easy.   It isn’t.

3. The ad tries to explain (which it doesn’t do very well) that if you spend 5 minutes doing each of the 10 activities in the commercial, you will promptly burn up the 160 calories in a 13.5 oz. bottle of Coke.  When was the last time you saw a 13.5 oz. bottle?  If you drink the more common 20 oz. bottle of Coke, it would require performing each activity for 7.5 minutes to burn the 240 calories you consumed.  Spending 7.5 minutes hugging, shouting or getting dressed might be a challenge.

4. Towards the end of the commercial, the ad suggests that enjoying life requires Coke.  I get it. This is advertising, and Coke has long been known for advertising which equates drinking Coke with happiness.  But, the company claims they are making attempts to tackle obesity.  If being healthy is part of how you enjoy life, Coke will not help you.

5. The commercial conveniently ignores the fact that if you just don’t drink Coke, you won’t need 10 activities to burn off the calories.

Thanks for nothing, Coke. Try again.