It looks like we are in for another packaging battle. In NPR’s Health Blog article entitled “Food Industry And Health Experts Face Off Over Package Labeling” they describe how the latest packaging debate is shaping up. Check out Kellogg’s latest packaging for Corn Pops to see if you can spot the debate. Beyond the deliciously styled cereal and colorful Corn Pops branding, did anything new or different catch your attention on this box? If you guessed the “Good Source of Fiber” claim, the “No” buzzer would have to eliminate you. The correct answer is: Nutrition Keys. Nutrition what? you might ask. Yes, Nutrition Keys is the latest attempt by the processed food industry to educate consumers on the nutritional profile of their food. Oh, and to be clear, the Nutrition Keys are the little tiny blue tabs on the top of the box. Here, let me zoom in for you. Can you see them now?
Yeah, I can’t see them very well either. But if the packaged food industry is behind the Nutrition Keys movement, my guess is that’s the way they want it. After all, it was these same characters that brought us “Smart Choices Made Easy.” Remember this program? Fruit Loops, Capt’n Crunch, and Cocoa Krispies were some of the healthy products that qualified under the industry’s strict guidelines.
Unfortunately you don’t have to look too hard to see examples like these in your grocery store. For those who claim the food industry needs no regulation, I shake my head in disbelief. What we see on many food packages today is a gross adulteration of nutritional information. Rather than inform consumers about how to make a good choice, the processed food industry has found more ways to manipulate consumers into feeling better about making bad choices.
Case in point, the Corn Pops fiber claim is trying to make consumers feel better about eating Corn Pops. Is Corn Pops a healthy, nutritious choice? No! But some people could walk away with a box in their cart based on the green banner, pretty sunny picture and not realize that each serving has 10g of sugar and 29g of total carbohydrates in a 1 cup serving. The facts are that a cup of sugared cereal should be considered a treat, not an everyday breakfast solution, but consumers are tricked and confused into believing otherwise. So what should be done? We need to speak up and demand better labels. After consumers complained about the “Smart Choices Made Easy” program, the FDA listened and the program was stopped [see “Smart Choices” Food Labeling Program Halts Over FDA Concern]. How can our labels be improved? After working in the food industry for almost 20 years, I’d recommend the following.
- Get real with Serving Sizes: Americans are eating way too much food. Consumers need to be educated on appropriate servings sizes, and product packaging must get this job done. In the cereal category, 1 cup or 3/4 cup are the typical serving sizes. How many people do you know who eat 1 cup of cereal for breakfast? Not many. Although Kellogg’s won’t tell you, I’m guessing the average consumer is eating 2-3 cups of Corn Pops when eaten for breakfast. If the cereal manufacturers are going to claim that 1 cup is the serving size, then they need to educate consumers using the product’s packaging.
- Create a color-coded system:
Consumers need a quick visual that indicates if the food they are buying is part of a healthy diet. Unfortunately the U.K. recently abandoned it use of a “traffic light” coding system. According to an article on the Fooducate Blog [Breaking: UK Gives Up on Traffic Light Nutrition Labels], “The ‘problem’ with the traffic lights is that they were scaring off customers. People would see one or two reds and decide not to buy a product.” Yes, the problem with the system was that it was starting to work. A well-designed system should result in decreased consumption of unhealthy foods and increased consumption of healthy foods. I will be shocked if the FDA or the independent Institute for Medicine (IOM) goes as far as recommending a color-coded system, but it is exactly what’s needed and the food lobby is desperate to make sure it doesn’t happen.
- Eliminate the use of front-panel health claims on foods that are not deemed intrinsically healthy: Brands like Corn Pops shouldn’t be able to create a healthy halo for themselves by fortifying themselves with vitamins or adding some soluble fiber to their products. Although improving the health credentials of unhealthy products is worthwhile, dressing up Corn Pops as a healthy cereal is downright misleading and should be illegal.
What do you think needs to be done? Have you seen some packaging out there that makes you mad? Help get the conversation going and share it with us.