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.

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.