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Junk Food Armageddon Redux, or Why Froot Loops Isn't a Health Food

A study by the Prevention Institute showing that most of the "healthier" foods sold to kids are, in fact, total crap may be a final rebuke to the food industry's insistence that marketing self-regulation works. The institute, a non-profit based in Oakland, Calif., looked at 58 products that food companies have taken it upon themselves to highlight as shining stars and concluded that 84% of them don't meet very basic nutrition criteria.

This includes boxes of Kellogg's (K) Apple Jacks and Froot Loops cereals with the word "fiber" in all caps and so big you couldn't possibly miss it, as well as Kraft's (KFT) CapriSun Sunrise, the "wholesome morning drink for kids" that has only 10% fruit juice.

This isn't the first time food companies have been caught trying to pass off sugary junk food as healthy. When Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies were awarded a "Smart Choices" label in 2009, the sneering was so loud that the program was quickly disbanded.

War of the (labeling) words
The timing of this new study is particularly horrible for the food industry since it comes amid an escalating fight over what to do about the confusing, misleading balderdash known as front-of-package labeling. In the next few months, the Institute of Medicine is expected to release another report on food labeling that will offer recommendations to the FDA.

The group's first report in October suggested that food manufacturers should be forced to come clean and highlight the bad stuff, like sodium and calories, on the front of their packages. Left to their own devices, food manufacturers, not surprisingly, choose to highlight only the good stuff -- fiber, calcium, vitamins, low fat, less sugar etc.

A horrified food industry responded preemptively to the IOM's idea with a plan for its own labeling system set to be implemented early this year, though it has yet to release any specific details about it.

What self-policing hath wrought
Food companies have thus far been able to thwart any serious moves towards new government regulations on food marketing to kids because they insist that they're doing a perfectly good job policing themselves. They formed the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CARU) in November 2006 to make sure that only products meeting their self-developed nutrition criteria are advertised to kids under age 12.

It was from this dubious list that Prevention Institute researchers culled their study subjects. They selected the 58 CARU-approved foods that also had some sort of front-of-package health or nutrition claims. And here's what they found:

  • 57% of the study products were high in sugar
  • 53% were low in fiber
  • 93% of cereals were high in sugar and 60% were low in fiber
  • 36% of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium, 24% were high in saturated fat, and 28% were low in fiber
  • 90% of snack foods were high in sugar, and 90% were low in fiber
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the industry's self-styled nutrition guidelines.

Food companies like Kraft, General Mills (GIS) and Kellogg clearly don't want the government dictating what products they can and can't market to kids. A set of draft guidelines presented by a collection of government agencies in December 2009 laid out strict criteria for what constitutes healthy food for kids, although those rules have been MIA ever since.

But, as the Prevention Institute's study shows, if food manufacturers expect to be left alone to self-regulate, they're going to have to get serious about how they define healthy foods. And that means biting the bullet and acknowledging once and for all that Froot Loops has as much business being on a healthy food list as it does a spelling test.

Image from Kellogg

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