Here We Go Again …

Nutrition Keys - a bad solution to a big problem

It looks like we are in for another packaging battle.  In NPR’s Health Blog article entitled “Food Industry And Health Experts Face Off Over Package Labeling” they describe how the latest packaging debate is shaping up. Check out Kellogg’s latest packaging for Corn Pops to see if you can spot the debate.  Beyond the deliciously styled cereal and colorful Corn Pops branding, did anything new or different catch your attention on this box?  If you guessed the “Good Source of Fiber” claim, the “No” buzzer would have to eliminate you.  The correct answer is:  Nutrition Keys. Nutrition what? you might ask.  Yes, Nutrition Keys is the latest attempt by the processed food industry to educate consumers on the nutritional profile of their food.  Oh, and to be clear, the Nutrition Keys are the little tiny blue tabs on the top of the box.  Here, let me zoom in for you.  Can you see them now?

Nutrition Keys on this package are supposed to help consumers eat better.  Can you find them?

"Nutrition Keys" are Processed Food Manufacturers latest attempt to communicate nutritional information. The question is, can you find them?

Yeah, I can’t see them very well either.  But if the packaged food industry is behind the Nutrition Keys movement, my guess is that’s the way they want it.  After all, it was these same characters that brought us “Smart Choices Made Easy.”  Remember this program?  Fruit Loops, Capt’n Crunch, and Cocoa Krispies were some of the healthy products that qualified under the industry’s strict guidelines.

Cap'n Crunch is heralded as a "Smart Choice" in the 2010 "Smart Choices Made Easy" Program created by processed food manufacturers. It makes you wonder ... what would be a stupid choice if Cap'n Crunch is a "smart choice."

Unfortunately you don’t have to look too hard to see examples like these in your grocery store.  For those who claim the food industry needs no regulation, I shake my head in disbelief.  What we see on many food packages today is a gross adulteration of nutritional information.  Rather than inform consumers about how to make a good choice, the processed food industry has found more ways to manipulate consumers into feeling better about making bad choices.

Case in point, the Corn Pops fiber claim is trying to make consumers feel better about eating Corn Pops.  Is Corn Pops a healthy, nutritious choice?  No!  But some people could walk away with a box in their cart based on the green banner, pretty sunny picture and not realize that each serving has 10g of sugar and  29g of total carbohydrates in a 1 cup serving.  The facts are that a cup of sugared cereal should be considered a treat, not an everyday breakfast solution, but consumers are tricked and confused into believing otherwise. So what should be done?  We need to speak up and demand better labels.  After consumers complained about the “Smart Choices Made Easy” program, the FDA listened and the program was stopped [see “Smart Choices” Food Labeling Program Halts Over FDA Concern]. How can our labels be improved?  After working in the food industry for almost 20 years, I’d recommend the following.

  1. Get real with Serving Sizes: Americans are eating way too much food.  Consumers need to be educated on appropriate servings sizes, and product packaging must get this job done.  In the cereal category, 1 cup or 3/4 cup are the typical serving sizes.  How many people do you know who eat 1 cup of cereal for breakfast?  Not many.  Although Kellogg’s won’t tell you, I’m guessing the average consumer is eating 2-3 cups of Corn Pops when eaten for breakfast.  If the cereal manufacturers are going to claim that 1 cup is the serving size, then they need to educate consumers using the product’s packaging.
  2. Create a color-coded system:
    Traffic lights labeling system tried by the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency (FSA)

    U.K.'s Food Standards Agency's traffic light system

    Consumers need a quick visual that indicates if the food they are buying is part of a healthy diet. Unfortunately the U.K. recently abandoned it use of a “traffic light” coding system.   According to an article on the Fooducate Blog [Breaking: UK Gives Up on Traffic Light Nutrition Labels], “The ‘problem’ with the traffic lights is that they were scaring off customers. People would see one or two reds and decide not to buy a product.”  Yes, the problem with the system was that it was starting to work.  A well-designed system should result in decreased consumption of unhealthy foods and increased consumption of healthy foods.  I will be shocked if the FDA or the independent Institute for Medicine (IOM) goes as far as recommending a color-coded system, but it is exactly what’s needed and the food lobby is desperate to make sure it doesn’t happen.

  3. Eliminate the use of front-panel health claims on foods that are not deemed intrinsically healthy: Brands like Corn Pops shouldn’t be able to create a healthy halo for themselves by fortifying themselves with vitamins or adding some soluble fiber to their products.  Although improving the health credentials of unhealthy products is worthwhile, dressing up Corn Pops as a healthy cereal is downright misleading and should be illegal.

What do you think needs to be done?  Have you seen some packaging out there that makes you mad?  Help get the conversation going and share it with us.

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11 thoughts on “Here We Go Again …

  1. Hi Bruce,
    I’m wondering what you think of the snack Gudernoobs made by WooHoo Foods.
    They are all natural fruit/nut chews that also have omega-3s. Only 30 calories each and they come individually wrapped so they are perfect for on the go. Nothing artificial, no preservatives.

  2. “For those who claim the food industry needs no regulation, I shake my head in disbelief.”

    Well, we’ve now had 100+ years of food regulation I America (passage of the Purr Food Act in 1909, approx.). We’ve got to get beyond thinking “regulation” is the answer and recognize some political rally – regulators have, and always will, be captured by the regulatees, and become their shills. The USDA and FDA are in bed with the industry, but carry the aura of officiality, so it influences consumers.

    Better that both of the agencies get out of the nutrition advice business (maybe just stick to inspections and fraud?), and leave nutrition certification to qualified third-party services. And journalists need to do a better job of calling out industry-driven programs, and not just take PR material and turn them into articles.

    • I agree our system is broken. After all, how can we trust regulators that used to work for lobbyists or big food companies to truly keep our food safe?

      There aren’t any easy answers, but I don’t see how giving up on the USDA or FDA is the solution. Rather, by continuing to expose the abuses of processed food companies, factory farms, lobbyists, and unethical regulation, I believe we can work through our political system to effect change. That is what democracy is about, right? I know our democracy has lost its way for the time being, but I have faith that we can reclaim our democracy from corporate interests and lobbyists.

      How do you think we can make these changes happen? How can our voice be heard? I’d love to hear all of your thoughts and suggestions!

    • Thanks Wayland! Yes, I have seen this, and it’s great. I put a copy in my follow-up file in hopes of referencing it in a future post … possibly on the economics of organic food? We will see. Thanks for sharing it! Bruce

  3. Even starting something like the traffic light system would be bad, because it still leaves “them” deciding what is to be red, green etc. For example, the Lipid Hypothesis has been disproven as a fraudulent study, but the powers that be still believe that saturated fat is bad, and that low fat foods are good, when in fact the opposite is true…