Food Guidelines May Be Crossing the Line

Apr 30, 2009

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing

Based on a sample of
120 foods representative of the U.K. diet, experts at Oxford University
have calculated that just seven percent of foodstuffs would be forbidden
from claiming they were nutritious and 40 percent from claiming they were
healthy, according to research cited by consumer rights organization Which?.

Products such as jam
doughnuts, custard tarts, pork sausages and ready salted crisps could allegedly
use health and nutrition messages on their products under European Commission
(EC) proposals.

An EC regulation on nutrition
and health claims adopted in May 2006 was intended to
“stop consumers being misled into buying less healthy products they
thought were good for them.” Nutrition claims would be legally defined,
with substantiated health claims.

Which? now believes
that pressure from European governments looking to promote their national
products, regardless of how healthy they are, have diluted the Commission’s
criteria. These, it says, are now “unscientific and fundamentally

Senior public affairs
officer Colin Walker said, “The U.K. Government needs to get these
proposals thrown out and completely rewritten. The adoption of these criteria
will weaken the fight against obesity and poor diets doing far more harm
than good.”

For the skeptical, one
case in point may be a study by Wrigley asserting that chewing gum can
improve teenagers’ academic performance, according to
Researchers at the company’s Science Institute found that students who
chewed gum showed an increase in standardized math test scores with better
final grades than those of others who didn’t chew gum.

Wrigley has conducted
a series of projects “to learn more about the potential health and
wellness benefits of chewing gum.” In this case, the authors concluded
that it might “be a cost-effective and easily implemented method to
increase student performance.”

Focusing on alertness
and concentration, situational stress, weight management and appetite,
and oral health, the Wrigley Institute’s executive director claimed,
“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that supports the benefits
of chewing gum for various cognitive performances.”

Discussion questions:
Have rules concerning health claims lost their effectiveness in the U.S.
as they apparently have in the European Union? How can retailers help consumers
to really understand what is and is not healthy?

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11 Comments on "Food Guidelines May Be Crossing the Line"

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Ben Ball
13 years 17 days ago

OK, I’m not so sure about chewing gum to pass geometry. But in general, could it be that food IS basically healthy–and that it is just the amounts and combinations we choose to consume that make us fat and ill? Whatever happened to “all things in moderation”?

Max Goldberg
13 years 17 days ago

No matter what the rules, savvy marketers will find a way around them. With claims of “all natural” and “fiber-filled” consumers are being bombarded with messages that shade reality.

This has been going on in Europe for some time. When Ferrero claims that their chocolate candies are good for children because they have a milk-based cream filling, common sense has gone out the window.

Ralph Jacobson
13 years 17 days ago

Europe’s standards, if anything, have been more liberal than our standards in many ways. We in the US have some decent guidelines–BOTH for retailers and manufacturers. Remember, there are several stakeholders in this issue. The government shouldn’t pull back because stakeholders will continue to push the limits of the law.

Bottom line, one of these days, maybe–just maybe–consumers will take responsibility for their actions, regarding nutrition, health,…whatever.

Gene Detroyer
13 years 17 days ago
The real winner in this space is creativity. In the U.S. it is amazing how marketers can creatively make something sound like it is nutritious or healthy when in fact it is quite the opposite. Or, their ability to play on people’s concerns about obesity and actually target those with products may in fact fool the consumer into eating more. Most notorious are “Fat-Free” products where fat is substituted with sugar and because people think they are free of fat, they eat more. Or, 100-calorie packs that behaviorally encourage consumption rather than limit it. The influence business has on government is also is quite alarming. Apparently it is no different in Europe than in the U.S. Any efforts to tighten rules always seem to be watered down. Consider the recent fights over the new food period. Perhaps the commission in the E.U. could simplify everything by forbidding health claims entirely and let the people figure it out. Not a bad idea for the U.S. either.
Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
13 years 17 days ago

In the U.K. and America, retailers are not expert enough to let their customers know which foods in their stores are truly healthy or not. Their main focus is selling what the customers choose to buy for whatever reasons, hoping everything sold has health benefits and that Oxford U’s wisdom-ites don’t mess up our food plates too much.

Most consumers, it would seem, eat food to enjoy and live, letting all the health claims be their nutritious dessert. Now along comes Wrigley to bless us with the knowledge that we can chew gum for “various cognitive performances,” which one assumes are healthy exercises are dunkin’ donuts.

Marge Laney
13 years 17 days ago

Is it really the retailer’s duty to police our food choices? For sure, they should not sell us rancid or out-of-date product, but should they decide what’s healthy for us? I think not. Whatever happened to personal choice? If you’re looking at a box of crackers to buy and the ingredients listed are forty items most of which you can’t pronounce, maybe you shouldn’t buy it! I don’t care if the box screams “healthy” and “natural.” As a nation, I think we have really lost our ability to reason and trust faith in our own judgment. If the government has to save us from ourselves, we’re doomed. We must get back to thinking for ourselves at least once in awhile.

Warren Thayer
13 years 17 days ago
The response by some retailers, with shelf tags denoting “healthy” foods in one way or another, is the best news for shoppers in many years. Many retailers with dietitians do a good job with e-newsletters, tips in fliers, store tours for shoppers, etc. One problem is all the legalese and technical detail that gets in the way of making straightforward statements to shoppers. When I first became diabetic 20 years ago, it was difficult sorting through all the language on packages and, as a result, truly beneficial foods were blocked from using language that would have helped me make a purchase decision in their favor. I’m a little confused as to why “all-natural” still remains essentially meaningless after all these years, and some potentially loosey-goosey use of the term “organic.” All in all, an informed shopper who takes personal responsibility (ha!) is the best answer. Since that’s not going to happen, retailers who can intelligently make the job easier for shoppers, with shelf tags, cooking classes, e-newsletters or whatever, are going to be a step… Read more »
Edward Herrera
Edward Herrera
13 years 17 days ago

I think Bill Cosby said it best: Chocolate cake has eggs, milk, and flour. It must be good for you. I think overall people want to eat healthy while maintaining the food experience. Factors such as economics, 2 working adults, availability, and trusting the marketing have hindered health.

I believe unsubstantiated health claims and making nutritionals unavailable should be criminal. Yes people should choose and be responsible for their health choices but society also has some responsibility to provide creditable information.

Bryan Larkin
Bryan Larkin
13 years 17 days ago
While it is imperative that we all take responsibility for our own lives and those of our children, transparency–or lack thereof–can make this very difficult. Just like the challenges to investing or home buying, legalese and marketingese in the food industry has blurred the lines to the point that it is difficult to determine what is or isn’t healthy. Fewer ingredients? That may be good, but how was the product made–and where? Less fat? It may be good, but in peanut butter that fat is sometimes substituted with sugar in a new concoction. Brand owners and retailers have built a huge business selling many things we don’t need–but think we do or think we want–in order to increase sales. Obscuring the quality of the product, the ingredients, and more, helps them do this. Even if the product is honestly marketed, there still exists the possibility that the ingredients are not exactly what the brand owner thinks–as in the products made with modified milk from China last year. Governments can’t keep up with clever marketing folks.… Read more »
Ken Yee
Ken Yee
13 years 16 days ago

Any reasonably intelligent person knows what food is good or bad without needing to read labels.

Since government wants to protect every person (whether they actually want to listen or not), it will be a never ending journey. Completion will never happen.

Even the most thoroughly researched laws, regulations and guidelines will fail if the people they try to educate and protect are ignorant, irresponsible or simply do not have the intelligence to follow it anyway.

Put time and resources into reasonably good guidelines and stop. Then put the money and people to other causes.

Mark Lilien
13 years 3 days ago

When all food labels say “Buy me ’cause I’m good for you,” the message will be meaningless, and smart marketers will try another message. Since most marketers aren’t smart, most items will say they’re healthy, and shoppers will just ignore the message. Overused words and expressions (new, giant size, all-natural, etc.) don’t mean anything. They’re just “label spam”.


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