If the foods we ate were actually as healthy as their packages would have us believe, Americans certainly wouldn’t be spending $168 billion a year on obesity-related healthcare costs. So it shouldn’t exactly be shocking to learn that yet another study has found that the front-of-package labels on processed food items are misleading (to put it kindly).
Even judging by these low standards, the new report out Wednesday from the Prevention Institute manages to evoke some distress.
The report focuses on the claims made on packages of certain cereals, meals, beverages and snacks that are marketed to kids. Researchers zeroed in on 58 products that were deemed healthy by an industry group and that also made nutritional claims on their front-of-package labels. Among the 58 items were such staples as Campbell’s Tomato Soup, Skippy Super Chunk Peanut Butter and Rice Krispies.
The researchers examined the "nutrition facts" panels of all 58 items to determine how much sodium and fiber they contained, and to calculate the percentage of total calories that came from sugar, fat and saturated fat. Then they checked to see how many of the items measured up to nutrient criteria derived from the federal government's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." To qualify as healthy, foods had to:
- Derive less than 35% of their total calories from fat (exceptions were made for nuts, nut butters and seeds) and less than 10% from saturated fat;
- Get less than 25% of their total calories from sugar;
- Contain at least 1.25 grams of fiber per serving (milk products and 100% fruit juices got a pass); and
- Contain less than 480 milligrams per serving of sodium (for snacks) or less than 600 milligrams per serving of sodium (for meals).
Care to guess how many of the 58 items failed to meet at least one of these criteria and were judged “unhealthy” by the Prevention Institute researchers? Would you believe 49?
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That’s right -- 84% of the items declared healthy by an industry group called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative actually weren’t, including the tomato soup, peanut butter and Rice Krispies.
Among the other findings:
- 95% of all products in the study contained added sugars, including high fructose corn syrup and healthy-sounding alternatives such as honey and fruit juice concentrate.
- 17% of the items contained “no whole food ingredients.”
- Only one of the 58 products contained a green vegetable (peas).
The study concludes that it’s time to call in the food police -- otherwise known as the Food and Drug Administration -- to create a rational, uniform and honest system for conveying nutritional information on food packages, as is already done in Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands:
“Key nutrition information, including calories, saturated fat (and trans fat), added sugar, and sodium should be listed in easy-to-read type, on the front of packaging. Nutrients associated with health, including vitamins A, C, D, calcium, and fiber, should not be included since they have the potential to mislead shoppers into believing that foods with a poor overall nutritional profile are healthful.”
Those who disagree with this will probably point out that the study was commissioned by an advocacy group that calls itself the Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity Environments. Some may say that self-regulation by the food industry and greater parental responsibility can lead to healthier choices.
Just keep in mind, under this laissez-faire approach, added sugars and unhealthy fats have come to account for almost 40% of the calories eaten by kids and teens, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn.