- The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics is asking the Food and Drug Administration to adopt stringent rules for package labeling, ending deceptive language and pictures that make consumers believe a product is healthier than it is, according to comments entered in the online docket for the FDA's multi-year nutrition innovation strategy.
- The trade group representing more than 104,000 registered dietitians nutritionists, nutrition and dietetic technicians, and registered and advanced-degree nutritionists, said that there are currently no ways to prevent unhealthy products from having seemingly healthy claims, like "made with whole grains" or "contains real fruit." These claims often appear on less healthy products, like sugary cereal or fruit snacks, the group said.
- The group proposed a set of rules, which would require manufacturers to say which proportion of a product was made from real fruit and vegetables — not in powder or concentrate form — and to disclose that a product that only uses produce as a dye or flavoring source contains no fruits or vegetables.
There's a reason why the old adage says eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Fruits and vegetables should be a major part of Americans' diets, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Choose My Plate tool indicating that adults should eat up to three cups of produce a day. But most Americans don't follow these recommendations, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that just a tenth eat what they should.
But many consumers find themselves swayed by label claims — even if they don't have much meaning. Linda Verrill, a member of the consumer studies team in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Office of Analytics and Outreach, said at a public hearing last year that nine out of 10 consumers use health claims when deciding what foods to buy. Through several regulatory revisions the FDA is currently looking at, including definitions of the terms "healthy" and "natural" on labels, it appears that the federal government could start cracking down on what manufacturers are allowed to say.
The Association for Nutrition and Dietetics' comments on the regulatory docket, which includes several nutrition-related initiatives FDA may be considering, are among 1,357 from consumers, companies and advocacy groups. Many agree with them about the labeling issue.
"Food stores are filled with sugary cereals, frozen novelties, and pastries carrying claims that they are 'good' or 'excellent' sources of vitamins and minerals," the Association for Nutrition and Dietetics' comments say. "Cereals, candy, and salty snacks tout healthful ingredients like berries, fruit, or kale, even when they contain minuscule amounts of these healthful ingredients. When consumers purchase and consume these generally unhealthy products based on misleading claims, producers of truly healthy foods lose market share, undermining healthful innovation."
But how much of a problem is language and packaging that indicates products have more fruits and vegetables than they actually do? Courts have tended to rule in favor of manufacturers. Last summer, two men attempted to file a class action lawsuit against Hain Celestial, the maker of Garden Veggie Straws. They claimed that the packaging and the name led them to believe they contained more actual vegetables. Despite the name and pictures of vegetables on the packaging, the product's five main ingredients are actually potato starch, potato flour, corn starch, tomato paste and spinach powder.
In April, a federal judge in New York threw out the lawsuit, saying that the labeling was misunderstood by "some few consumers viewing it in an unreasonable manner." The judge ruled, the labeling is accurate because it calls the product a "vegetable and potato snack," and those are the two most prevalent ingredients.
A consumer's lawsuit against General Mills-produced Mott's Medleys fruit snacks had similar claims, and was also thrown out. The plaintiff argued that the fruit snacks were essentially corn syrup, sugar and starch with some fruit and vegetable juice concentrates — even though on-package language and graphics may lead consumers to believe there's more actual fruit.The judge ruled that statements like "made with real fruit and veggie juice" were objectively true — though they don't indicate how much juice is included.
While consumers rely on label claims, finding out that they are deceptive hurts the product and the manufacturer in the long run. Consumers appreciate food and beverages that embrace transparency on their labels. While this sort of change may rile manufacturers who make these kinds of products, it will help consumers know more about what they are buying. It would also provide a boost to manufacturers who produce products that truly do have significant amounts of fruits and vegetables, as their health claims would be some of the few left standing. This sort of change should help build consumer trust — not to mention improve public health.