Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor
Health foods have become a booming business, but nutrition experts say food companies should take care, lest their products be viewed as more hype than wholesome.
A recent study indicates that selling “better-for-you” foods and beverages generally results in higher profits. The study conducted by the Hudson Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that foods perceived as healthier made up nearly 40 percent of sales and generated upwards of 70 percent of sales growth. In fact, food manufacturers that focus on expanding sales of healthy items are experiencing more than twice the average rate of growth of companies selling mainly traditional products.
As this sector continues to expand, more and more food processors are incorporating good-for-you items into their product lines. But consumer advocates are concerned that some businesses eager to tap into the health market may be labeling products with misleading nutrition claims.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently filed suit against General Mills, alleging the company is intentionally misleading consumers about the healthfulness of its fruit snacks. General Mills’ fruit snacks line includes items such as Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot and Gushers. Claims like a “good source of Vitamin C,” low-calorie and low in fat are featured on many of the snack packages.
CSPI says that while these statements may be accurate, they are tricking shoppers into purchasing a sugary candy with little nutritional value. The organization’s complaint says, “In fact, Defendant’s Fruit Snacks contained trans fat, added sugars and artificial food dyes; lacked significant amounts of real, natural fruit; and had no dietary fiber.”
This isn’t the first such complaint General Mills has faced. The company felt the heat from the Food and Drug Administration when the agency forced General Mills to discontinue deceptive cholesterol and cancer-prevention claims on its Cheerios cereal in 2009.
With regard to the fruit snacks complaint, General Mills released the following statement: “We stand behind our products, and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products.”
That General Mills’ labels are accurate is not in dispute, but accuracy is not the issue at hand in this case. For instance, the fruit snacks in question may be a good source of Vitamin C, but the vitamin can be added to products in order improve their health value, rather than appearing naturally in a product’s ingredients. The potential problem with a nutrient declaration on “junk food” is that currently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not permit nutrients to be added to food that would otherwise be considered unhealthy or of limited nutritional value.
In addition to the FDA’s guidance on added nutrients, the agency also requires that health claims related to disease prevention be proven through scientific evidence. General Mills’ past run-in with the agency over its cholesterol and cancer claims most likely resulted from a lack of scientific studies showing that Cheerios, in fact, produced these positive effects.
Food companies should take advantage of the growing health market, but they should, at the same time, be cautious in their approach. When incorporating a new health product or enhancing the healthfulness of an existing item, manufacturers must take the time to review existing regulatory requirements before incorporating health claims or nutrient declarations on product packaging.
Reviewing health labeling requirements will help ensure businesses stay within the confines of governmental guidance — and customers will feel more certain they are getting what they pay for.
How do you feel about health claim requirements? Are they too strict, just right or could they be improved upon? Let me know at email@example.com.
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