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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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.