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?
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My neighborhood grocery store is displaying a wall of Cheerios boxes with this banner over the inevitable heart: “You can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks (see back for details).” I immediately turned to the back to learn that “Cheerios is the only leading cold cereal clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 and 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.” I like Cheerios, but come on? What clinical study? A footnote gives the reference to a study published in Nutrition in Clinical Care (1998;1:6-12). I immediately went to look for it but alas, the journal ceased publication in 2005 and is not available online or in the NYU or Cornell libraries. Want to take a guess at who might have funded the study? If anyone has a copy, please send. The FDA used to be able to demand serious scientific substantiation for health claims like this one, but no more. Congress says one study is sufficient, no matter how old, designed, or paid for. The courts say advertising is a form of free speech and protected by the First Amendment. Caveat emptor.
Update: Andy Bellatti of Small Bites reminds me that as always, Center for Science in the Public Interest was there first. Nutrition Action Healthletter talked about the study–surprise! funded by General Mills–in 2005.
At last the FDA is going to take a look at those confusing symbols on food packages purporting to tell you how healthy the products must be. PepsiCo uses green “Smart Spots.” Kraft uses green “Sensible Solutions.” Just about every breakfast cereal sports symbols indicating that they are low in fat, lactose-free, high in fiber, containing whole grains, and so forth. These are unregulated health claims, although the companies would argue that they are just providing information. As the FDA politely puts the matter, “Although each symbol intends to indicate that the food product bearing the symbol is a healthful choice, each symbol program has different nutrient requirements.” Indeed. The FDA will hold hearings on this topic on September 10 and 11 to solicit information and comments. If you have thoughts on whether companies should be allowed to use these symbols or scoring systems, or whether the FDA needs to establish firm criteria for their use, now might be a good time to let the agency know.
Another question today: “I BUY FARM RAISED SALMON FROM SUPERMARKET IT IS FROM ASIA. DOESN’T SAY COLOR ADDED. I SEE ATLANTIC FISH SO CALLED, NATURAL COLOR ADDED. WHY WOULD THEY SAY THAT IF IT IS NATURAL?? DO YOU HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT ONE.. THANKS.
LOVE YOUR ARTICLES. AL.”
Weird, no? I discuss this problem in the Fish Quandaries chapter of What to Eat in the section called Label Quandary #3: Artificial Color. The bottom line: all farmed salmon is colored pink because otherwise it would be an unappetizing gray and nobody would buy it. The color, which is fed to fish in the food pellets, usually is a synthetic version of the natural pigment (which originates from krill) but is sometimes isolated from yeast. Is either “natural?” This could be argued either way but the real point is that the FDA has not produced a regulatory definition for “Natural.” It should, if for no other reason than to end the confusion. Food companies want everything to appear “natural” because they know it sells. The fish section is the wild west of the supermarket. Caveat emptor!
The FDA has just announced the opportunity for anyone interested to comment on how the agency plans to evaluate the scientific validity of health claims on food labels as a basis for allowing them. In case you haven’t noticed, just about every product in supermarkets boasts some health benefit, no matter how absurd the idea that eating a particular breakfast cereal might really prevent you from getting heart disease. Health claims are not really about health. They are about selling food products. So any time the FDA tries to deny a health claim, the company takes the agency to court. The courts say the First Amendment protects commercial speech so food companies can say pretty much anything they want to about the health benefits of their products. The FDA keeps trying to require some basis for scientific substantiation of health claims and this is its latest effort. I put “rules” in quotes because its new guidance document represents the FDA’s “current thinking on this topic. It does not…operate to bind FDA or the public.” My opinion: health claims should be allowed on food products. Foods are foods; they are not drugs and health claims are invariably misleading. Never mind. It’s too late for that. But at least let’s require some evidence for health claims. If you want to weigh in on this issue, here’s your chance. The FDA wants comments by September 7.
Wild salmon are a gorgeous salmon pink because the fish eat marine krill, tiny crustaceans loaded with pigments – mainly one called astaxanthin but also another called canthaxanthin. These get incorporated into the salmon’s flesh and can be identified by testing laboratories….
Farmed salmon, alas, are not fed krill. Instead they are fed pellets like the ones fed to cats or dogs. As a result, their flesh is an unattractive gray color. Research on the industry-important question of what best sells salmon demonstrates two things: the darker its pink color, the more likely you are to choose it over more lightly colored salmon; and if the salmon is gray, you will not buy it at all.
So salmon farmers resort to cosmetics.
I keep putting “organic” in quotation marks because it is hard to know what it would take to consider a fish organically raised or nurtured. The basis of organic food production is control over growing conditions. But big fish eat smaller fish and migrate thousands of miles over rivers and oceans. If they end up full of methylmercury and PCBs, how can they possibly be considered organic? Fish farming also seems anything but organic. Farm-raised fish are treated with pesticides to prevent lice, and they eat pellets containing artificial colors, parts of fish and other animals, and binders and thickeners made from soybeans that could be genetically modified. How, you might want to know, could any farmed fish be labeled organic?