17 March 2013

False in Advertising

Mayor Bloomberg wants to stop people from buying huge sodas because he's worried about the amount of sugar people consume in their drinks, and its contribution to obesity, diabetes, and related diseases.

I think he has a point, but I think there's a larger problem with grossly misleading food advertising that encourages people to think that total junk is healthy food.

Case in point: check out this advertisement for General Mills kids' cereals:

It will be a little hard to read at that size, but the ad makes the claim that whole grains are the first ingredient in all General Mills kids' cereals.

They're not technically lying: here's the ingredient list for Lucky Charms, just one example of their cereals:
Whole Grain Oats, Marshmallows (Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Gelatin, Calcium Carbonate, Yellows 5 & 6, Red 40, Blue 1, Artificial Flavor), Sugar, Oat Flour, Corn Syrup, Corn Starch, Salt, Trisodium Phosphate, Color Added, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness.Vitamins And Minerals: Calcium Carbonate, Zinc And Iron (Mineral Nutrients), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), A B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Artificial Flavor, Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2,(Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A(Palmitate), A B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3.
The first ingredient is, indeed, whole grain oats.  But different sugars are listed five times in all: two listings each of sugar and corn syrup, plus dextrose, another kind of sugar, through the (legal) trick of listing the marshmallows as a separate ingredient.

The nutrition "facts" section of the label reveals that a 3/4-cup serving of the cereal contains 2 grams of dietary fiber, and 10 grams of sugars.  Three-quarters of a cup of plain oatmeal? 7.7 grams of dietary fiber. That means the serving of Lucky Charms contains less than a quarter of a cup of whole grain oats, and all the other ingredients add up to more than half a cup.  

Meanwhile, 10 grams of sugar adds up to two and a half teaspoons.  What the heck is taking up the rest of the volume in that three-quarters of a cup?  Looks like it's mostly corn starch (also listed twice) and oat flour (not identified as whole grain, therefore almost certainly refined).

Back to that advertisement, which I found in a parenting magazine while waiting at the doctor's office a couple of months ago.  It's designed to make parents think these cereals are healthy, kind of like an apple.

And what context do parents have to challenge those claims? Nutrition information that gets into the media usually involves sound-bites about isolated pieces of information: low fat versus high fat foods, sugary drinks versus artificial sweeteners, eggs and chocolate are healthy this week but excess sodium is still bad; but how much sodium is excessive?  Confusing, contradictory, and ultimately unhelpful.

What's missing is education about diet in general.  Pyramids and plates and various other gimmicky graphics try to do something, but what the nation needs is to educate a generation in school over the long term, year after year after year, not just in a single day or week or even year, about the general parameters of a healthy diet.

What's missing is also meaningful regulation about the kinds of claims advertisers can make about food.  General Mills isn't alone here; I've seen billboards for Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's with the word "healthy" on them.

Oh, and Yellow 5 & 6, and Red 40? Banned in Europe for their effects on kids' behavior, made out of petroleum. Yes, if Lucky Charms are in your home, you're eating the same stuff you put in your car at the gas station.