Bite-sized facts would improve truth in labeling

Posted Nov. 22, 2009, at 7:46 p.m.

This time, they really have gone too far.

The major food manufacturers use banners, shooting stars and all colors of the rainbow on their packaging. Most of it we recognize as hype, saying “Pick me” over all the other choices on the supermarket shelf.

More and more of the packaging, however, has become an appeal to our roles as family caregivers, guardians of the health of our loved ones. By buying some products, we are led to believe we’re doing all we can to help those we love live healthy, happy lives.

The packaging hypesters crossed the line on Cocoa Krispies. The chocolate-flavored puffed rice cereal — whose main claim to fame had been that it turned milk brown in the bowl — “now helps support your child’s immunity,” according to the big gold banner on the front of the box.

So Kellogg’s puts enough antioxidant vitamins A, C and E in a serving to meet 25 percent of a child’s daily requirements. But weigh that against the sugar in that serving (more than 10 grams) and say THAT is an immunity booster.

Say it to the mothers of children who can’t get immunized because the H1N1 vaccine is in short supply in many states, including Maine. Say it to other high-risk groups and see if they’ll buy the cereal instead of a multivitamin supplement that might offer a bit more of a health boost.

But please don’t say it with a straight face.

Kellogg’s at first cited U.S. Department of Agriculture studies that show most Americans aren’t getting enough of the vitamins it is adding to Cocoa Krispies and other cereals. After critics demanded to see studies backing claims of immune support, the company stopped making the claim.

Other cereals under fire include Cheerios. In a pending lawsuit, plaintiffs challenge General Mills’ claims that the cereal is “clinically proven” to lower cholesterol.

Dannon Co. recently settled a suit challenging health claims about its Activia yogurt. While admitting no wrongdoing, Dannon set up a $35 million fund to reimburse consumers (see Dannon’s Web site for details).

Other recent labeling disappointments include the Smart Choices program, put on hold after criticism that its logo-for-sale approach did little to inform consumers. After taking heat when the label landed on some rather high sugar- and salt-content items, officials decided it was time to wrap up the program.

A better idea comes from Hannaford, whose Guiding Stars logo is found on a number of store brands. Consumer Reports likes to rate such efforts but could not, since Hannaford doesn’t fully disclose criteria for handing out the one, two or three stars on packages. Consumer Reports notes that since Guiding Stars appear on less than a quarter of Hannaford products, it’s probably a pretty good system.

The panel titled “Nutrition Facts,” printed by law on processed foods, could stand a makeover. Nutrition Action Healthletter, perhaps this nation’s biggest health newsletter, wants more understandable language and more relevant information, such as the percentage of whole grains and presence of allergens.

The FDA is reviewing the issue of product labeling. Be your own best advocate by reading carefully and critically before deciding what goes in your shopping cart.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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