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Cereals: Nutrient labeling gone awry

Last week, a study conducted by Yale researchers concluded that front-of-box nutrition-related claims on cereal boxes are potentially misleading to customers. Wow. Did we really need to conduct a study to figure this one out? Just walk the aisles of any grocery store, and it’s obvious—marketing and food processing gone awry.  Match this with a population that doesn’t want to take responsibility for its actions, even if those actions are detrimental to their health.

I recently found myself in a Walmart cereal aisle, and it might as well have been the candy aisle for what it had to offer. While I found a lone box of Kashi’s U cereal looking out of place with its cardboard, eco-friendly packaging, the rest of the aisle was pure sugar and food coloring. This was not food; this was junk. And the sad thing is that people go from eating these cereals in the morning to eating the chips, cheesies and Doritos one aisle over after lunch. And yes, the labeling could lead you to believe that, between these two aisles, you are eating whole grains, fiber, iron, vitamin D, calcium, and boosting your child’s immunity, when in fact you’re no closer to meeting your daily nutrient requirements, but rather fast-tracking your family to Type II diabetes, amongst other ailments.

As for the Yale study, I agree that labels can be misleading, especially if something says “supports your child’s immunity,” or “whole grain.” You want to believe that a product has or does what it says it does. There is so much marketing and messaging directed at consumers that it can be hard to decipher the good from the bad, especially if you’re in a rush or you have kids hanging off of you.

But I also believe that consumers do not take responsibility for their health. They want someone else to do their homework for them. So they read the marketing speak on the front of the box, but they don’t read the actual ingredients on the side of the box. This is akin to cigarette smokers crying wolf that they didn’t know cigarettes were bad for them. Ignorance is bliss, and if you want to believe that a blue and pink cereal loaded with sugar can actually help your immunity because the box says so, then you will find a way to convince yourself that this is so.

The study did call for increased regulation of all nutrition–related claims on product packaging.  An obvious suggestion was that any product making a nutrition claim has to meet minimum overall nutrition criteria. Australia has already passed legislation moving in this direction. The other option outlined in the study was for the FDA to “pre-approve all types of claims, not just health claims, before companies are allowed to use them.” While I agree with this in theory, the FDA is already so overburdened and under funded, I don’t see how this program could actually become a reality.

I think the more realistic option may be a combination of products meeting overall nutrition criteria, but also what New York Times columnist Mark Bittman suggested in a recent editorial, “Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks.”  Bittman went on to suggest that the income produced from such a tax could be earmarked for a program that encourages a better diet for Americans by making “healthy food more affordable and widely available.”

This solution would help to counter the other reason consumers are sticking to the junk cereals: cost. The number one label 30% of study respondents were not willing to buy was “organic,” citing that organic cereals are too expensive. Even Kashi’s U cereal at Walmart, which is not organic, but healthier than the other options, seemed pricey compared to the products with which it was sharing shelf space. But in fact, it was cheaper at Walmart, than, say, at Sunflower or natural products stores.

I absolutely respect that cost is an issue for families. And we know that through subsidies, the junk cereal companies have it good. They’ve been given the incentive to create cheap food for people. People say that organic and healthy foods need to be cheaper, but there is a cost to food production, and organic farmers and manufacturers do not receive the same incentives to produce lower cost products. The irony here is that the “organic” label is the only label that comes with a certification and is guaranteed in its value proposition (no pesticides, no GMOs) next to the “will boost your child’s immunity” or fuzzy “whole grains” claims.

Changing our country’s eating habits will not only save lives, as Bittman outlines, it could save “tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.” So, let’s start with truth in labeling or advertising, if you will. But then let’s encourage people to take more responsibility in their personal health, and support that decision like we did with cigarettes, with increased taxes, countered by initiatives to make real, healthy food more affordable. You may say, "It's just a cereal," but to me, it's the lie that has set the degradation of the American food system and population's health in motion.

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