I don’t even walk down the cereal aisle at my grocery store, so I only learned of this online. Kellogg’s cereals have started carrying health claims about how they boost your children’s immunity. Sugar-laden, full of toxic refined grains, and created in a laboratory, these cereals actually argued that they could help prevent your kid from coming down with swine flu thanks to the synthetic vitamins added to them.
Wonder of wonders.
Of course, the new box cover didn’t last long. The San Francisco city attorney thought the marketing message was misleading and asked the company to back up the claim. Rather than provide the substantiation, Kellogg’s opted to change the cover.
On the one hand, I am glad for this minor victory going to consumers.
On the other hand, I am peeved about our labeling laws and confused regarding a good solution. Marion Nestle, author of the Food Politics blog, believes that we need more stringent regulations. We need to give the FDA some teeth to attack these people who make health claims without backing them up with rigorous science.
And yet for many foods and dietary supplements, there is no rigorous science. Why? It costs money, lots of it. And who’s going to pay the money to do research on natural food products which have slim profit margins and which no one can patent?
And truly, is science the best judge of what is and is not healthful for us? One of my major presuppositions on this site and as a nutrition coach is that science is too reductionist when it comes to food. It focuses too much on individual nutrients, and not enough on foods. And it certainly doesn’t focus on entire diets or ways of living.
So, should we avoid all health claims altogether as Europe has now done — a move which Marion Nestle applauds, but which will leave consumers without much guidance? Or should we require rigorous science to support health claims — a move which will under cut inexpensive natural foods and dietary supplements?
Right now the law in the U.S. is fairly lenient. For food and supplements, we allow what’s called “structure-function” claims under Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This means that the product is supposed to support a structure or function of the human body — not treat or cure a disease. The only contingency is that the claim be truthful and not misleading. In the recent Kellogg case, the San Francisco attorney believed the Kellogg claim to be misleading, so he asked for proof.
Yay for him.
But what if this was a different case? What if this was a traditional foods manufacturer selling coconut oil, and they claimed in their marketing materials that coconut oil can boost your body’s metabolism? Or what if it was a grass-fed beef cattle rancher, and he claimed on his website that grass-fed beef was higher in CLA — a proven anti-inflammatory that can help reduce the risk of heart disease? There are a few studies that support these claims, but are there enough? And would these small-scale producers be able to conduct their own research on the scale or caliber that giant agribusiness corporations can when they fund university research?
Unfortunately, what’s considered “misleading” is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say that the saturated fats in these two traditional foods wipe out any health claim they could make with integrity. Others would say that saturated fats are actually good for you. Hence, my confusion.
I’m not confused about what is or isn’t good for me. You all know the one rule I apply to test those waters: I ask myself, is this food REAL? Is it old? Is it traditional? If the answers are yes, I don’t think eating the food can harm you. If the answers are no, then I say avoid it like the plague. It’s quite simple, really.
But I am confused about what is or is not an appropriate standard for health claims on food and supplement labels. Do you all have any thoughts or ideas about health claims on labeling and marketing materials? Is it good or bad? What kinds of regulations, if any, should we have? I can’t wait to hear from you.