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.

sugarcereals

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.

mcdonalds-piled

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.

140205-coca-cola-green-mountain-coffee-1830_15ba6e362dba2d62391b469388cb6934

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

lean_cuisine_ingredients

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.

home-image10

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.

votewithyourfork

Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

p10302921

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

vitamins1

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.

p10302921

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.

Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

index

Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950′s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

CDC-chart-portion-sizes

  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  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. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

4fd783f0bbbda.preview-620

If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.

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.

ANDReportCover

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.

67974_470416076361606_1005254201_n
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.

Sweet Deception: Why Artificial Sweeteners May Be Hiding in Your Food

As our country continues to face an obesity and diabetes crisis, food companies are under great pressure to reduce the excessive use of sugar and calories in their products.  For industry, this generally means replacing natural sweeteners with artificial ones, rather than decreasing the use of sweeteners all together.  Companies are starting to sneak artificial sweeteners into all types of products, including those intended for children, and they aren’t very eager to tell you that they are doing it.

Just last month, a controversial petition was submitted to the FDA by the Dairy Industry requesting that flavored milk be exempt from labeling standards which require companies to disclose the use of artificial sweeteners.  Currently, products containing artificial sweeteners must be labeled with what the FDA calls, ‘nutrient content claims.’  These are phrases such as  ‘reduced calorie’ or ‘no added sugar’ which are placed on the front of the package in addition to displaying which sweeteners are used in the ingredients list on the back of the package. Below is an example of the current standard vs. what the Dairy Industry wants:

ucm347940

This issue was particularly alarming to parents, because it was the  Dairy Industry’s belief that these claims may deter children from wanting to drink the artificially sweetened milk that caused them to make the request.  The FDA has just begun reviewing comments from industry and consumers about the issue, thus a decision is still in the works, but the concept and subsequent controversy has really got me thinking about the increased use of these sweeteners in general.

The following words and phrases are those commonly used on of the front of food packages to denote the use of artificial sweeteners in a product:

‘reduced calorie’
‘no added sugar’
‘sugar-free’
‘diet’
‘light’

Why don’t companies just label the products, “sweetened with artificial sweeteners”? Is that just too honest? Or is it because the food industry knows that many consumers want to avoid these sweeteners, so they would rather work with the FDA to create positive sounding (and arguably VERY misleading) claims that avoid using the word ‘artificial’?

To add to the confusion, some claims like “no added sugar” don’t always mean the same thing for every product.  Sometimes it means the product contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar; sometimes it means there are no added sweeteners whatsoever.  It is not the same thing as “sugar-free”, however, as products with the “no added sugar” claim also usually contain naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit or dairy products. Confused yet? You are not alone.

Not only do many consumers not understand the meaning behind these claims on the front of the package, but for those wanting to abstain from artificial sweeteners, looking to the ingredients label on the back of the package can be just as confusing.  Many people are familiar with the common brand names for artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet N’ Low, and Splenda but these names usually won’t be found in the list of ingredients. Instead, companies list the generic names, like these:

Sucralose
Aspartame
Acesulfame K (or Acesulfame Potassium)
Saccharin
Neotame

The Sugar Association conducted a poll which showed that when the generic term for an artificial sweetener is used, unsurprisingly, consumer recognition declines.

While the research surrounding the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, surveys have shown that many Americans still feel it is important to know what sweeteners are being used when they purchase foods and beverages.   The current practice of using misleading claims (or no claims at all), and unfamiliar generic terminology is unfair to those consumers.

If you are curious  about which foods and beverages these sweeteners are hiding in, I took a quick look through the  grocery store to see where I could find them.  This is certainly not an all inclusive list; artificial sweeteners are currently found in over 6,000 products. But, some of these might surprise you!

Bread Products

thomas-light-multi-grain-183219

Thomas’ Light Multi-grain English Muffins

delightful_bread_ww_honey_main

Sara Lee Delightful 100% Whole Wheat Bread with Honey

Juice Products

00116CL

Capri-Sun Roarin’ Waters

0003120035027-500x500

Ocean Spray Light

Fruit Products

077567022523

Breyer’s Pure Fruit Bars

41zXzelC54L

Musselman’s Lite Applesauce

Dairy Products

1744

Dreyer’s Slow Churned ‘No Sugar Added’ Ice Cream

dannon-light-fit

Dannon Light and Fit Yogurt

Breakfast Products

psq-062_1z

Quaker High Fiber Oatmeal

productDetail_main_2351_main_01_d

Special K Protein

Snack Products

quaker-cookies-n-cream-chewy-granola-bars-reduced-sugar-8-bars-per-pack-pack-of-6-photo-001

Quaker ’25% Less Sugar’ Chewy Bars

jolly-time-healthy-pop-28802

Jolly Time Healthy Pop Kettle Corn

Other Products

220

Tylenol Sinus

0005410000180_500X500

Vlasic ‘No Sugar Added’ Bread and Butter Pickles