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‘Healthy’ Food Labels Miss The Mark

Tue, 09/21/2010 - 5:13am
Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

Americans are growing increasingly concerned for their health and nutrition, and for good reason. One-third of Americans are now classified as obese, and deaths from diet-related conditions like diabetes and heart disease continue to rise. A new army of health-conscious shoppers are looking for more nutritious options, and food manufacturers have responded to these preferences —  though perhaps not in the best way.

Instead of taking the opportunity to truly increase the health benefits of their products, many processors are taking a shortcut by “enriching” existing unhealthy foods with vitamins and slapping on labels proclaiming the supposed health benefits of the “new and improved” products. Unfortunately, these items often provide little actual benefit to either consumer or manufacturer.

Consumer health may actually be suffering as a result of these deceptive labels, according to some activist groups, who say these enhanced products contribute further to obesity and other health problems. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for its Vitaminwater, an enriched beverage that touts benefits like increased immunity and healthier joints. CSPI nutritionists argued that the high sugar content of each bottle outweighed any possible health benefit. Coke requested that the suit be dismissed, but a federal judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed in July 2010, citing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations that limit food processors from making false health claims by adding nutrients to otherwise unhealthy foods.

Such government regulations are often what keep food companies from attempting to advertise false benefits, but it seems that more and more manufacturers are attempting to cheat the system — a risky gamble as food agencies have started to crack down on deceptive labeling in the past few months. In August, the FDA sent warning letters to Dr. Pepper Snapple and Unilever for making false nutritional claims that their green tea beverages include antioxidants that can help treat or prevent disease. The agency stated that it is inappropriate to fortify snack foods like carbonated drinks in order to market them as healthy products.

This does not mean that the FDA never endorses fortified products or that manufacturers can never advertise an item’s health benefits. It only means that any nutritional claims must be verified by government research before being marketed. Instead of adding nutrients that may or may not improve overall health, why not focus on adding or subtracting the ingredients that have been proven to have an impact? Decreasing sodium content and adding whole grains to foods are both hot trends in the industry right now, and both are true selling points companies can place on labels without fear of government retaliation.

Despite the fact that FDA verification boosts a product’s credibility and marketing value, some companies are pushing back against such requirements, including pomegranate juice maker, POM Wonderful. POM recently filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission after the agency advised the juicer of the FDA regulation that requests validation of nutritional claims before they are placed on labels. POM argues that such a rule violates its first amendment right to free speech.

Raising the free speech flag may bring interest to the case, but there is serious doubt that POM will be successful in pursuing that route. According to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the first amendment, ads are under less free speech protection than noncommercial speech, and false or misleading speech doesn’t have the luxury of the amendment’s protection at all. If this case does get very far, chances are the outcome won’t be what POM is looking for. This case will probably do nothing more than further justify the FDA’s stance on deceptive nutrition claims.

Government labeling regulations are not designed to stick it to the food industry. They are there to protect public health and ensure processors maintain a high level of integrity. Even if government labeling regulations were not in place, the food industry would benefit by self-regulating the information it places on labels. Leaving misleading claims off products can do nothing but help the food business. While plastering packaging with food claims may initially increase sales, companies could hurt their brands in the long run. Consumers will no doubt eventually find out which claims are bogus, and they will stop purchasing those products, leaving manufacturers with damaged reputations and thinner pocketbooks.

What do you think about deceptive labeling in the food industry? Should food manufacturers have the freedom to add nutrients to otherwise unhealthy snacks? Let me know at Lindsey.Coblentz@advantagemedia.com.

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