Old-fashioned Deception

This week, while observing at City Market, I decided to switch up my position from a stationary window seat in the cafe and instead, stroll through the aisles. It was 7:30am, the earliest I had ever been to City Market, and everyone was still waking up. People, myself included, moved slowly and I saw a couple yawns.

As I weaved in and out of the aisles, I was amazed by the number of boxed, bagged, bottled and canned products that lined the shelves. As my eyes adjusted, I suddenly noticed that while the color, shape and size of products was interesting, what fascinated me the most was the messaging on the labels. Perhaps it was my stomach speaking, but before I knew it I was in the cereal aisle, crouched over my cart, looking at different cereal options. A few seconds later I began to wonder, what are these labels telling the consumer?

As I moved from organic to conventional brands, the internal dialogue continued. Even at a healthy foods store such as City Market, the ales still contain highly processed products with extremely mis-leading and deceiving information on the labels. What’s more, is that if I weren’t an informed consumer, I would have no idea that some of these products are sounhealthy. This got me thinking about eating as a question of personal choice. How are we expected to choose healthy foods if the information on labels isn’t accurate and reliable?

As I stood in the cereal aisle puzzled, my eyes settled on a big blue label at the top of a Lucky Charms box. The label stated that Lucky Charms is ‘Whole Grain Guaranteed, a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D’, among other things. This made Lucky Charms appear to be relatively healthy. But is it really?

According to the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) General Mills uses whole grain claims to distract consumers from sugar content. The report states that the company markets all of its Big G cereals as containing “More Whole Grain Than Any Other Ingredient*” with an asterisk that takes you to the disclaimer  “*as compared to any other single ingredient”.

The PHIA report points you to General Mills’ web page about sugar where they compare plain Cheerios (1 gram of sugar per serving) to Trix (10 grams of sugar per serving ) then ask:

From a calorie and nutrient standpoint, are both products a good breakfast choice?

Yes, they are. In fact, all General Mills cereals are lower calorie, nutrient dense choices.

Just because both cereals are low-calorie and contain whole grains, doesn’t mean they are equally healthy or even healthy to begin with! Don’t forget that Trix has 9 g more sugar per serving than Cheerios, and both are highly processed. However, without taking a deeper look at the cereals ingredients you would never know this. The marketing scheme employed by General Mills’ fools consumers into thinking that Lucky Charms (and all other Big G cereals) are healthy by emphasizing whole grain content in order to distract attention away from sugar content.

Given that it’s not just General Mills using dishonest marketing gimmicks to boost profit, should manufacturers be required to put health warnings on product labels? Imagine if instead of boasting whole grain content, the General Mills’ blue label stated that agricultural chemicals were used. Would this turn consumers off from buying it? Or perhaps nutrition labels belong on the front of food packages? Whatever it is, measures needs to be taken to ensure that food labels provide a more accurate reflection of the product and its health implications.

FN 2/20

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One Comment on “Old-fashioned Deception”

  1. nicole lackey
    April 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    As a mother of children who consume breakfast cereal, I strongly feel that sugar content should be an ingredient that should be highlighted. My children like to point out the whole grain labeling but are surprised by the sugar content. I have even been surprised by sugar content in cereals that I thought were pretty healthy on first glance.

    I strongly agree that agribusiness should be required to label the chemicals they use on the package, and yes it would be great if the ingredients were on the front of the package so the design/packaging isn’t the first thing you notice which distracts from what it is really made of.

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