There are lies, damned lies, and … health claims printed on the front of packaged foods.
So say two prominent food industry critics in a commentary published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
We here at Booster Shots are no great fans of front-of-package labels. But we’ve got nothing on Marion Nestle and Dr. David Ludwig.
Nestle, of course, is the New York University nutritionist who wrote “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.” Ludwig is a pediatric endocrinologist who is on a mission to end childhood obesity. Together, they are urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban companies from splashing dubious health claims on boxes of breakfast cereals, snack items, frozen dinners and anything else you might consider eating.
The federal government did just this way back in 1906: The Pure Food and Drug Act outlawed health claims that were “false or misleading in any particular.” After food makers got the prohibition overturned in court in 1911 in the case of U.S. vs. Johnson, Congress responded the following year with the Sherley Amendment, which once again gave the feds power to go after “false therapeutic claims intended to defraud the purchaser,” according to this historical roundup from the FDA.
Fast-forward to 1984, when Kellogg’s high-fiber All-Bran cereal won an endorsement from the National Cancer Institute. “Within 6 months, All-Bran’s market share increased by 47%, sending an unmistakable message that health claims sell products,” Nestle and Ludwig write.
So perhaps it was inevitable that in 2009, Kellogg would claim that its Cocoa Krispies and other Krispies cereals would “support your child’s IMMUNITY” because they are fortified with vitamins A, C and E, three antioxidants that contribute to the immune system. Here’s what Nestle had to say about that assertion in a Q&A last year with the San Francisco Chronicle:
"All nutrients are involved in immune function. But is it remotely possible that Cocoa Krispies might protect your child against colds or swine flu? I wish."
After San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera challenged the immunity claim, Kellogg backed down. But case-by-case enforcement isn’t sufficient, Nestle and Ludwig say. Food makers are brazen in their pronouncements that their highly processed products are healthy, and research shows that consumers not only believe the statements but also perceive them to carry a government seal of approval.
That leaves only one solution, the coauthors say: “an outright ban on all front-of-package claims.” Such a ban would surely face a court challenge on 1st Amendment grounds, Nestle and Ludwig concede, but the FDA should not shrink from the fight:
"Claims that sugar-sweetened products make children smarter or boost their immunity are reason enough for the FDA to take this issue back to court and for Congress to consider legislative remedies.”
-- Karen Kaplan
Photo: Health claims on packaged foods -- like this one from Kellogg's -- have so little foundation in reality that the FDA ought to ban them, experts say. Credit: Courtesy of Marion Nestle