Why do major food companies get a bad rap about kids' nutrition?
Kids have grown up with processed foods for decades, and many major food and beverage companies’ commercials intend to attract kids to their products, who companies then hope will beg their parents to buy more. As more parents are becoming increasingly health conscious, however, they — and even their children — are turning away from major food and beverage companies toward fresh and organic foods instead.
School nutrition has become such a hot topic that children are jumping in to effect changes. Take, for example, one Philadelphia high school student who developed a Wellness Corner at her school to serve students healthy alternatives to common breakfast items like yogurt parfaits with too-sweet canned fruit in syrup. She put together a menu that included single-serving cereal and skim milk, yogurt, granola bars, apples, and egg sandwiches — small changes that are adding up to make a big difference in school nutrition.
But where do major food and beverage companies fit into school nutrition? The past month’s headlines have examined, if not challenged, this relationship. Are these major companies making the changes necessary to earn the trust of parents and nutrition experts?
Kraft Singles gain and lose controversial seal of approval
Kraft Foods Group Inc. is at the heart of one of the biggest children’s nutrition controversies of late. The Kraft Singles brand was the first product to receive the “Kids Eat Right” label from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. According to The New York Times, the label was "to appear on the packaging for the regular and 2 percent milk versions of Kraft Singles, which account for roughly 95 percent of the Singles brand."
Kraft says that its Singles product has a number of nutritional benefits. Senior brand manager for Kraft Singles, Carmen Maria Navarro, told The New York Times, “It has a dairy component, and we know children don’t get enough dairy, as well as being an excellent source of calcium and Vitamin D – and it’s kid friendly.” Kari Ryan, Kraft’s director of nutrition, science, and regulatory affairs, also pointed out that, “80 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 4 to 18 do not get enough calcium, while almost half of all children’s diets lack adequate vitamin D,” The New York Times reports.
The purported endorsement caused outrage among some parents and health groups, who were shocked and confused that the academy would choose a “pasteurized prepared cheese product” as the first recipient of its new nutrition label. Kraft has come under fire in the past for using additives like sugar, salt, artificial dyes, and preservatives in its foods.
Amid the outrage, in the final days of March, the academy and Kraft decided to end the program, saying that “misperceptions are overshadowing the campaign,” according to Kraft. The deal was so advanced, however, that the new labeled product still hit stores, and it will take some time before the deal is officially over.
How is the academy handling the backlash?
The academy attempted to bounce back from this controversial label approval with a statement it hoped would better explain its choice, “Kraft is putting the 'Kids Eat Right' logo [on its packaging and] saying Kraft is a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right, not vice versa. The academy has never endorsed any product, brand or service, and we never will,” reported Fox News.
Thus, a better explanation of the label might be that instead of “endorsing” Kraft Singles as a healthy product that parents should include in their children’s lunches, the academy was actually recognizing that Kraft supports its children’s nutrition mission. The Wall Street Journal reported that the academy’s goal was “to spread the word that children need more calcium and vitamin D in their diets.”
However, would consumers who hadn’t read the academy’s statement realize this sentiment? Despite the academy’s best efforts to explain itself, by originally approving this label for Kraft Singles’ packaging, it may have inadvertently ascribed a nutrition promise to a brand that isn’t even technically classified as a processed food, but rather a cheese product.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University told The Wall Street Journal that the academy “has become a laughingstock. Its viewpoints are so tainted, they’re so deeply influenced by their sponsors that it’s hard to take them seriously.”
According to the academy’s 2014 annual report, its other corporate food and beverage company sponsors include PepsiCo Inc., General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., and Unilever PLC.
In similar controversial food and beverage endorsement news, Coca-Cola Co. has taken some heat for working with "a network of dieticians" who have written posts to promote the company's mini cans of soda as healthy snacks. In the company's defense, Ben Sheidler, a Coca-Cola spokesman, said, "Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent," reported the Associated Press.
Major food companies and nutrition
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics isn’t the only nutrition organization feeling the brunt of consumer and health activists’ backlash. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a group of 55,000 individuals who essentially control the country’s school lunch programs, has also been linked to major food and beverage companies, which has not always been seen in a positive light.
The main issue surrounds the requirements for school lunches put in place by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The SNA, trusted to hold children’s nutrition first, is the act’s loudest and most public opponent. The association and other opponents, which include Republicans in Congress, food companies, and even some students, argue, respectively, that the act’s guidelines are "a nanny-state intrusion," are too stringent, and produce unsatisfactory meals, The New York Times reported.
On the other hand, what’s interesting is that some food and beverage companies and organizations do support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. According to some individuals, the act is still too lax on certain standards for school lunch nutrition, as it still tends to favor food companies over healthy food. According to Mother Jones, some of these food and beverage industry supporters of the act — all of whom employed lobbyists to affect that legislation — include The American Beverage Association, The Grocery Manufacturers Association, International Dairy Food Association, The National Confectioners Association, The Snack Food Association, and PepsiCo, among others.
For now, when major food and beverage companies and children’s nutrition meet, discord often arises. But as more food and beverage companies embrace healthier ingredients to produce better-for-you foods, more parents and nutrition experts may be less wary of major companies’ influence on school and children’s nutrition. It’s unclear if or when that distrust may settle, but food and beverage companies would do well to appeal to parents and children’s nutrition organizations if they want to continue to be a part of parents’ grocery carts.