by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Cereals

Oct 28 2009

San Francisco takes on Cocoa Krispies!

Now that the Smart Choices program is on hold, it’s time to take a look at what else is on food packages these days.  My current favorite example is the huge IMMUNITY banner across Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies.

ImmunityI don’t know how you interpret this but my mind boggles at the very idea that eating Cocoa Krispies might protect kids against swine flu.

Apparently, the minds of the San Francisco attorney general’s staff are equally boggled.  They just sent a warning letter to Kellog:

“Specifically, the Immunity Claims may falsely suggest to parents that cereals like Cocoa Krispies are more healthy for their children than other breakfast foods that are not high in sugar and not highly processed.  The Immunity Claims  may also mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity, leaving parents less likely to take more productive steps to protect their children’s health.”

The city attorneys are asking Kellogg to provide copies of all of the consumer and scientific research the company used to establish this claim, or else.  If they don’t get these documents, they will “seek an immediate termination or modification of the advertising claim….”

Good idea.  I can’t wait to see how Kellogg’s – ever at the leading edge of advertising claims – will respond.

But wait!  Shouldn’t the FDA be taking this on?

Oct 26 2009

Which cereals do companies push hardest? The sugary ones!

Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at the Rudd Center at Yale have produced another well researched – and in this case, gorgeously presented – report on the ways cereal companies market their products.

Even a quick look at its summary gives an unambiguous result: most of the marketing dollars are aimed at pushing sugary cereals at kids.  Companies use TV and the Internet to push the least nutritious cereals.

None of this is particularly surprising but it’s great to have the data.  Information about marketing budgets for specific products is hard to get.  It is easy to understand why companies would rather nobody knew how much they spent to get kids to pester their parents to buy Froot Loops or Cocoa Puffs.

Most troubling is the dual marketing.  Advertising aimed at kids pushes sugar.  Advertising aimed at parents uses health claims and self-endorsements like the late (and not lamented) Smart Choices program I discussed in previous posts.

Companies may argue that sugary cereals are good because they encourage kids to drink milk, but the Rudd Center researchers also have shown that kids are happy to eat non-sweetened cereals  Furthermore, if they add their own sugar, they are putting in less than the cereal companies put in.

The bottom line: forget industry self-regulation.  It doesn’t work.

FDA: it’s time to take on health claims.

Sep 29 2009

Health claims for yogurt? Really?

I like yogurt.  But do probiotics – those “friendly” bacteria in yogurt and  increasingly added to other foods – do anything for you beyond making yogurt taste good?  I wrote about probiotics in What to Eat at some length.  Tara Parker-Pope has a quick summary of the state of the research in today’s New York Times.

The quick answer is mixed.  It includes a lot of  “maybe” or “probably,” always a sign that whatever probiotics might do isn’t going to be much.  The answer is probably yes for infant diarrhea and, maybe, irritable bowel syndrome, and maybe or no for just about everything else.

In the absence of FDA action to regulate misleading health claims, lawyers have jumped into the breach.  They have just won a large class-action settlement – $35 million – against Dannon for claiming that Activia yogurt promotes immunity.   According to one news account, Dannon spent $100 million marketing the immunity-promoting effects of Activia ignoring the results of its own company-sponsored research which inconveniently showed few benefits.  (Did they not pay enough for the research?).

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them.  Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Probiotics are another reason why the FDA needs to set better standards for health claims.  If it were up to me, food packages would have no claims on them: none at all.  Foods are not drugs.

cocoa Krispies

And here’s another reason why:

Will Cocoa Krispies  be the next target of those pesky lawyers?

FDA: get to work!

Sep 10 2009

Cereal makers object to anti-salt ads in U.K.

The British Food Standards Agency is about to take on the high amount of salt in processed foods.  Leading cereal makers are not happy about this.   They don’t the think the campaign is appropriate because cereals account for “only” 5% of the salt in British diets.  Salt reduction is the new frontier of concerns about health.  Expect to hear lots more about how much of it is in processed and restaurant foods this year.

Sep 5 2009

Kellogg’s asks for a Froot Loops correction. More on Smart (?) Choices

Froot Loops

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from Dr. Celeste Clark, Kellogg’s senior vice president for global nutrition, corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer.

She had seen my previous blog post on the Smart Choices program, and wanted me to know that Froot Loops has been reformulated to contain 3 grams of fiber, not less than 1 gram, as I had posted, and that  in all fairness, I ought to post the new version.  Sure.  Happy to.  Here it is.Froot Loops_Nutrition Facts

This higher fiber product, of course, gets us into the philosophical question:  Is a somewhat-better-for-you, highly processed food really a good choice?  Does the additional 2.5 grams of fiber convert this product to a health food?  Whether Froot Loops really is a better choice than a doughnut as the Smart Choices program contends, seems debatable.

If I read the Nutrition Facts and ingredient list correctly, Froot Loops cereal contains:

  • No fruit
  • Sugar as the first ingredient (meaning the highest in weight–41%)
  • Sugar as 44% of the calories
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and, therefore, trans fat (although less than half a gram per serving so the label can read zero)

But with an implied endorsement from the American Society of Nutrition, which is managing the Smart Choices program, I guess none of that matters.  Or maybe the added fiber cancels all that out?

I pointed out to Dr. Clark that I had just bought the fiberless Froot Loops at a grocery store in midtown Manhattan, which means the old packages must still be on the market.

I discussed this and other such products with William Neuman of the New York Times whose reporting on the Smart Choices program appears on the front page of today’s business section under the title, “For your health, Froot Loops.  Industry-backed label calls sugary cereal a ‘Smart Choice.'”

According to his well reported account, Kellogg’s and other participating companies pay up to $100,000 for that seal.  No wonder the American Society of Nutrition and everyone else involved in the program want to set nutrition standards so loosely that they can encompass as many products as possible.   The more products that qualify for the Smart Choices logo, the more money the program gets.  I’d call that a clear conflict of interest.

Neuman managed to find nutritionists who defend the program.  I am not one of them.

Update September 6: CBS did a story on Smart Choices (I’m interviewed in it)

Update September 9: The American Society of Nutrition must be getting a bit defensive about the negative publicity, as well it should be.  It has issued an explanation to members.

Aug 13 2009

Increasing concentration in agriculture: a problem?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which does research in response to questions from members of Congress (in this case, Charles Grassley, Rep-Iowa),  has just released a report on agricultural concentration and food prices.  Concentration, for this purpose, has a specific meaning: the share of sales held by the four largest companies.

Grassley wanted to know: is increasing concentration in the food sector responsible for the recent rise in food prices.  The GAO says no, but check out its findings about what’s happening in the food industry.  Examples:

  • Less than 2% of farms accounted for 50% of farm sales in 2007 (See Table on page 10).
  • The top four concentration in grocery chains more than doubled from 1982 to 2005, from 16% to 36% (page 12).
  • The concentration in meat also has nearly doubled.  Beef concentration went from 41% to 79%, pork went from 36% to 63%, and poultry went from 27% to 57% (page 18).

Only two sectors have become less concentrated: Wet corn milling (translation: high fructose corn syrup) from 74% to 69%, and breakfast cereals (86% to 78%).  No wonder the Big Four Breakfast Cereals (General Mills, Kellogg, Post, Quaker) are so desperately pushing their wares these days.

And do take a look at the figure on page 19, which illustrates the steady decline since 1980 of the proportion of the food dollar that goes to the farmer (from 30% to less than 20%), and the steady increase in the proportion going to food marketing (from 70% to more than 80%).

The USDA must be really worried about all this.  Thanks to Maya for telling me that USDA has teamed up with the Justice Department to take a look at legal ramifications of increasing agricultural concentration.  Why?  America does best with “a fair and competitive marketplace that benefits agriculture, rural economies and American consumers,” says the USDA Secretary.

The Justice Department has its own interests in this matter: the anti-trust implications of food sector concentration.

I’m guessing that Senator Grassley wanted GAO to demonstrate that agricultural concentration does not affect prices and, therefore, is good for consumers.  Instead, the GAO report focuses attention on just how concentrated agriculture had become.  Let’s keep a close eye on this one.

Jun 4 2009

The latest functional foods!

Functional foods, you may recall, are those to which nutrients are added beyond those already in the foods.  The latest example from Unilever: calcium-enriched ice cream!  The philosophy: “better-for-you” foods will improve health.  Maybe, but is functional ice cream a good choice?

Functional foods differ from fortified foods, in which nutrients lost during processing are replaced.  The addition of iron to white flour, for example, replaces the iron lost during the milling of whole wheat.  Its replacement helps prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

So I suppose you can consider Kellogg’s new fiber-enriched cereals to be a form of fortification.  The PR people tell me  that adding fiber “is another example of our continued commitment to improving the nutrition credentials of our products to meet consumers’ needs and preferences.”  Their press release explains that Kellogg is doing this as a public service to improve kids’ nutrition: it is starting with Froot Loops.

What kind of fiber and how much?  Kellogg is a bit vague on these points, but says the fiber will be a combination of whole grain corn and oat flours and fibers.  Metamucil anyone?  And why don’t they just make whole grain cereals in the first place?

That’s why I keep thinking that functional foods are about marketing, not health.

Oct 5 2008

Sugars in kids’ cereals

Consumer Reports International counted the sugars and salt in kids’ products in 32 countries.  The sugars don’t look good, but they look worse in the U.S.  Kids’ cereals have lots of sugars–40% of the calories internationally but 55% in the U.S. Consumer Reports will describe the U.S. part of the survey in its November issue.  In the meantime, it says kids’ cereals changed their names from “Sugar” to “Honey” in the 1980s, but the sugars and calories are much the same.  Also in the meantime, Consumer Reports rates the cereals.  Most are the equivalent of fat-free cookies.  I wish it were easier to find a cereal that had a reasonable amount of fiber (the point of cereals, after all) and didn’t add sugars.  I’d much rather add my own, especially in the form of those crunchy brown crystals.

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