A Food Fight between Kids, Parents…and Regulators

The fight over food labels, health claims, and industry marketing is heating up.

Last week, the food industry voluntarily suspended the Smart Choices program after the FDA announced they would be looking into the program.

And today, Kellogg’s announced that they are discontinuing labeling cereals such as Cocoa Crispies and Rice Crispies as helping to “support your child’s immunity”, after the San Francisco city attorney sent a letter to the company asking them to back up these immunity claims.

As Marion Nestle explains, these types of food claims fall into a loosely regulated, grey area:

The Immunity claim…is a structure-function claim, meaning that the product is supposed to support a structure or function of the human body – not treat or cure a disease. If Cocoa Krispies were a dietary supplement, the claim would be completely legal because Congress authorized structure-function claims for supplements when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

Over the years, food makers complained that if supplements could use such claims, they could too. At first, the FDA issued warning letters to food companies using structure-function claims. It stopped after the courts ruled that food companies could make claims for the health benefits of their products on First Amendment grounds.

Now FDA says structure-function claims are OK to use as long as they are truthful and not misleading.

However, these claims are becoming more controversial – and increasingly coming under the gaze of city and state attorneys general – as they are at the heart of mainstream marketing of foods to kids.

On Monday, a study was released from Yale University showing that kids in the US see 642 commercials for cereals every year. And the more unhealthy the cereal, the more likely they are to be marketed to children.

As CBCNews reported:

The study found that cereals marketed directly to children have 85 per cent more sugar, 65 per cent less fibre and 60 per cent more sodium than cereals marketed to adults. Of the cereals targeted directly at children, just eight per cent met limits on sugar content to qualify for inclusion in the USDA’s Women, Infants and Children program.

Check out GoodGuide’s list of the least healthy cold cereals.

The Yale study found that cereal companies spent $156 million per year marketing cereals to children, with the money directed at a dual message: trying to convince kids that cereals are fun (and taste great), and trying to convince parents that they are healthy.

Kids know immediately if the companies are telling the truth on the first claim. But parents are increasingly confused about whether the health claims are accurate or actually misleading.

Look for this food fight to only get messier until the FDA steps in and establishes clearer standards for food package claims, or until industry agrees to fuller transparency on both product nutritional performance and marketing to children.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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