by Marion Nestle
Sep 6 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition at a Glance?

I get sent lots of food company press releases and this one is just in. Kellogg’s is announcing its new nutrition labeling for cereal boxes. Useful? Or even more confusing?

  • While in the UK recently I was surprised to see funny labels on the front of most food packages. They had most of the main nutrients people worry about (calories, fat, sugar, salt, etc…) and their amounts, and corresponding colour codes to tell the shopper right away if they were bad (red) or good (green). The programs, as far as I could tell (and after asking a few locals), seem to be run by grocery stores (here’s Tesco’s program, for example: ).

    I thought this was a terrific idea! Of course, there are improvements to be made. The system is driven by competitions between grocery stores and individual companies and each seem to have their own systems and colour codes. This does lead to some consumer confusion,for example if you shop at more than one store. (i.e. Tesco and Sainsbury’s, two of the main stores, use completely different codes).

    However, I did find this program very useful, even as a dietitian in training (who you’d assume should be savvier than the average consumer). It does need improving: Why not introduce a nation-wide colour consensus instead of leaving it up to grocery stores? And why not make it mandatory?

    I am quite happy with the Canadian food labels, but this would make it even easier for consumers and parents. Wouldn’t it make your life easier explaining to your child you can only buy cereals with green dots? And to stay away from anything red?

    I think the UK is onto something and hopefully it’s only a matter of time until the rest of us catch up.

  • Bad idea, unless we want to dumb down people even more.

    Red dots and green dots determine what we think is healthy and how we teach our children to eat? What will people buy years later when all they know is red and green dots, but the “coding” system has changed yet again and they have to choose between blue squares and yellow triangles?

    I wonder how the Stone Age people ever managed to choose their food without red or green dots? They had a heck of a lot more to worry about than today’s average grocery store shopper, to be sure. An omnivore’s dilemma, indeed.

    Real food just isn’t that confusing. Even my third grader can explain what good food is and it has nothing to do with green and red dots.

  • Tom

    Whilst I’m certain you’ve spent the time educating your child in the ins and outs of healthy eating, the majority of the population in the Western World hasn’t received a similar education and therefore needs something as simple as a Red/Yellow/Green dot system.

    I agree it’s not an ideal system (and so did Jessica) but it could be useful as part of a combined approach to re-educating the public about healthy eating. School programmes, pamphlets, websites – all being used so that eventually we won’t _need_ the dots.

    We would all love people to be more educated about _everything_, but sadly it’s not going to happen any time soon. Baby steps like this are what’s needed to help bring it forward.

  • Tom, you’re absolutely right. Anna – as you’re on Dr. Nestle’s website, I have to assume you’re more educated, when it comes to nutrition than the average person. This is great and, in turn, your daughter is likely more educated than the average 3rd grader.

    But, like Tom said, this is a system for the masses. The people who have never received nutrition education (there are PLENTY out there). It’s a step in the right direction.

  • WaltK

    Kellog will get PR points for this. But somehow, I think it’s silly to pretend that somehow, one refined, processed, extruded boxed cereal is ‘healthier’ than another refined, processed, extruded boxed cereal.

  • I would argue the the majority of people in the Western world have been grossly *overeducated* about their food and diet and it isn’t working out well at all. They have no “horse sense” about food anymore and are very confused about what is healthy and what isn’t. Sure, they can recite what they are told is healthy, but they have no sense of intuition about what is healthy. It is now widely accepted that lard is unhealthy, for instance. But we are survivors of people who consumed lots of lard and similar fats. If early humans had been consuming Crisco, Lean Cuisine, Pop Tarts, Lunchables, Yoplait, Snackwell’s, Chef Boyardee (boy are we kidding!), Shedd’s Spread, Smuckers, Orville Reddenbacher, Fluff, Chips Ahoy, and so on, we wouldn’t be here. We’d have died out as a species long ago (it’s slowly killing us now because now it’s not just the adults it is affecting, but our kids are showing the signs of “maturity” diseases earlier and earlier). But it’s hard to shake the notion that lard is bad for us because it has been drummed into us ever since the promotion of Crisco nearly 100 years ago. Eggs are the same way, yet most people think of cholesterol as a bad thing that needs to be as low as possible. Yet cholesterol is absolutely essential for life, and very low levels is far more associated with overall mortality than higher levels, especially for women and elderly people. But “educated” people are bending over backwards trying to keep their cholesterol low.

    For far longer than most people realize, in the US especially, we have been bombarded with food and diet advice from manufacturers, diet zealots, the medical establishment, and the government (the US particularly). Read up on Puritanical zealots of the 19th/early 20th century like Graham and Kellogg for examples of fad diets and crazy eating models, especially in America, where healthy food traditions have been sacrificed for the sake of convenience. The Road to Wellville book is very good look into this (I recommend the book over the movie). Now we are bombarded with “consumer education” from Big Pharma.

    Increasingly industrialized food began in the 1880s with “white” refined flour coming into widespread use (which coincides with the genesis of many new fancy cake recipes), then in the early 20th century new technology and an industrial waste product (cottonseed oil, a by-product of the the heavily pesticide-dependent cotton industry) brought us heavily promoted hydrogenated vegetable fats (Crisco). It was marketed as cheaper, healthier, and “purer” (whiter in color) than the traditional saturated fats (which were also often still created at home, therefore not profitable) of tallow, lard, schmaltz (poultry fat), and butter. Then dairying changed, with more processing, milk co-mingling, and loss of pasture, plus we had “experts” discouraging breastfeeding and encouraging formula feeding. In the 50s Keys came out with his seriously flawed Seven Countries study to demonize saturated fats from meat and dairy foods and the slope just became more slippery. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the “education” we are subjected to in Western countries. Very little of our food and diet “education”, if any, has benefited people’s health, and most of that education has had deleterious effects.

    People used to know a lot about food, even if they weren’t educated (formal education or by public service campaigns and media marketing). In fact, the most highly educated people I know today sometimes seem to be the most confused about what constitutes good food (they are afraid of so much of it), because everything they think about food has come from some sort of campaign, rather than an inuition, collective knowledge, and a sense of cuisine (cuisine is traditional food culture that develops over many, many generations, while abundantly nourishing and sustaining people and their offspring). Most of our modern food products are not the result of cuisine, but of technology and marketing combined with commodity food sources and waste products needing a use. Can we say that modern Western “cuisine” of industrially processed corn, soy, low-fat, non-fat, color-added, flavor-enhanced, shelf-stable, imitation, triple-washed, ready-to-eat food *products* is sustaining and nourishing our offspring, with their increasing rates of depression, activity disorders, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, allergies and asthma, learning disabilities, autism, weight gain, aggression, etc??? I think not.

    As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a great book, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier (the point that follow are largely missing in the movie, but abundently described in the book narrative – even though it is *not* a story about food or diet at all). A motherless young woman, Ada, is left alone in the world on a farm during the Civil War era, when her father, a gentleman-minister dies. She was reared in society in Charleston, SC, but they had relocated to the mountains of Western NC for her father’s health. In the days and weeks after the funeral, she consumes, often uncooked, what food is “put up” in the house’s larder, but then is at the mercy of what she can get from kindly neighbors. Her physical and mental condition declines because she is so helpless. She comes to the realization that she was groomed from childhood to be an beautiful, entertaining ornament, a companion to her father, and perhaps eventually to a husband, but in reality she is quite useless to anyone, even herself because she has no practical knowledge. She had the best “education” a woman could have in those days, with foreign language, music, literature, art, Ccontinental travel, etc. which is great for teaparties and soirees but nto for survival in difficult times. She was a very cultured young woman in every respect. But she couldn’t feed herself. She couldn’t cook, she couldn’t grow or raise anything, and she had no sense of how food production worked (even though she was living on a farm, albeit a “gentleman’s farm”.

    Then comes Ruby into Ada’s life, a strong, independent woman who needs no one. She was a neglected motherless child of a drunken lout, who from a very young age learned on her own to live in nature from the bounty of the earth. She has a deep, internal sense of nature’s rhythms, and she is amazed that anyone can be as stupid as Ada, when there is food and food capability all around them on the small but ample farm and in the woods. She trades the sack of coffee she finds in the cellar for hogs and provisions from neigbors that take care of their immediate needs. A hog can provide meat for the winter (smoked and cured into hams, bacon, and sausage) when there is little fresh food, rendered fat for cooking and soap making, bones for rich broths. She gets the farm back into production and teaches Ada valuable lessons of not only survival, but real living and strength, things she never learned from her tutors or life as an ornamental companion. I’ll leave it at that, before I start retelling the entire book. It’s fascinating look at how people fed themselves not so very long ago, before they had the benefit of experts telling them what to eat and not eat.

    One other point concerns another main character in the book, Inman, a Confederate deserter who is walking across NC to get back to his home in the mountains. Along the way, he is careful to keep a bit of meat and lard wrapped up in paper to eat. The lard especially is key to his survival, as he has scant food options as he repeatedly fights to avoid capture along the way. That lard is his energy, which allows him to travel on foot for days at a time between food. I started thinking about the biochemistry of his metabolism on this march across wide NC. I’m sure he was hungry, but that sort of energy source allows for even blood sugar, consistent energy levels, and far more clear thinking (his brain was probably fueled more on ketones than glucose). Fueling up on carbohydrates without ample protein and fat (had carbs been more readily available) would have left him far more aware of hunger pangs. He was more or less a hunter/gatherer during this journey.

    Another thought about the current food labeling, “healthy” eating guidelines, red and green dots, and whatever schemes and promotions marketers and health/govt experts and officials can dream up to get us to buy and eat (we cannot forget that commerce is as much a part of this equation as the eating, at least in the Western world because powerful commercial entities have a huge stake in convincing us to put ther products in our baskets) is that it is making everyone think in a dieting mentality, even if they are not trying to reduce weight. Think about that for a moment. Children, for instance, are exposed to “healthy” food messages all the time at school, in the media, perhaps at home, about this bad food and that good food, which they will see in a very black and white way, but there are far more nuances to food than good or bad, which is hard enough for adults, let alone for children. And their experiences do not match what they are taught; foods that are “bad”, they know from experience, often taste good to them. Our children are developing very complicated, warped relationships with food, and it all looks very unhealthy to me. We are confusing them with all sorts of mixed messages and the result is likely to be far more eating disorders than we already have. We have even skinny kids worrying about being fat now, and fearing fat in their diet. Fat kids are in an really difficult position, singled out with excessive scrutiny of their food and weight. And they are fed more and more low fat, but high sugar and starch foods, which makes them fatter and more confused about what to eat. Kids absolutely need enough fat for proper physical and mental development, yet they are removing as much fat as possible in the school lunch programs but not the sugar and starches, not that I’m championing the school lunch program’s fat choices, though. I send lunch with my child because all the choices (high or low fat) are horrendous, despite yearly overhauls to make them “healthier”.

    “Healthy” has become the new “natural”. No meaning whatsoever because the definitions are different depending on whose criteria we are using. My criteria for healthy is what has nourished humans since the earliest days, not what has appeared on our grocery store shelves in the past few generations.

  • Bix

    “Even more confusing”?
    Yes. Gimmicky.

  • We were pretty interested in this program, so we spke with Kellogg’s spokesperson Kris Charles to learn more about it. Check out the interview here: