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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kellogg’s is doing its bit for America’s health by adding whole grain to guess which cereal: Frosted Flakes! Kellogg’s sets its own nutritional standards–Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria. This cereal meets them. Why do this? The whole grains provide enhanced nutrition for kids along with energy. Of course Frosted Flakes provide energy. They contain sugars!
According to a group that tracks this sort of thing, the leading generators of food sales are (more or less in order): soft drinks, refrigerated milk, ready-to-eat cereal, fresh bread, bottled water, cookies, chocolate candy, and potato chips. Soft drinks are #1. A sufficient explanation for America’s weight problem?
Flying around the Internet is a press release from Kellogg announcing its new method for promoting the nutritional benefits of its products. Like PepsiCo’s Smart Spot and Kraft’s Sensible Solutions, Kellogg products will now have icons–based on the company’s own nutritional criteria, of course–indicating which products are “better for you.” Even better, you can participate in the launch of the new program. Register online for a panel discussion explaining how it all works. When Congress forced the FDA to permit health claims on food packages in 1990, it opened a Pandora’s box. I think we’d all be better off if companies weren’t allowed to do this. Surely, all the different methods of self-evaluation must be confusing, no?