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.