Labels that mislead
The Ottawa Citizen - November 17th, 2009
The Ottawa Citizen
Tue Nov 17 2009
Source: The Ottawa Citizen
Done in by Froot Loops. It's hard to imagine a more inglorious fate. That's what happened to the controversial food-labelling program Smart Choices.
The program's mandate was to identify healthy foods, but somewhere along the way consumers noticed that Froot Loops -- a sugar-laden cereal -- was among products awarded the coveted Smart Choices green check of nutritional approval.
Food and Drug Administration representatives cried foul. Smart Choices -- a program supported by the food industry -- quickly lost credibility. Now U.S. food officials are looking at other ways of guiding consumers toward healthier food choices.
There are lessons for Canada here when it comes to food labelling. Canada's comparable program, Health Check, has been in place for more than a decade, but its usefulness also is coming under increasing scrutiny.
The main problem is that the healthiest things we can eat are fresh fruits and vegetables, and those don't come with industry seals of approval. There's no Health Check label on a carrot bunch. Food labelling can actually direct consumers to make less-healthy choices because the stamps are typically found on highly processed foods, many of which have high sodium levels, are made with white flour and are sweet.
In other words, food label programs carry a weight of authority that influences consumer behaviour and directs busy shoppers to products that -- even if more nutritionally sound than Froot Loops -- are, at best, less bad than some other choices.
In Canada, Health Check, which is run by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, has listened to the criticism and will tighten its labelling criteria. Foods such as Dare Bear Paw Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies and Sobey's Compliments Balance low-fat fudge bars will no longer receive the program's endorsement.
That cookies and fudge bars were ever endorsed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation in the first place is reason to suspect that something is amiss. Program director Terry Dean acknowledges that putting the Health Check logo on products such as cookies "didn't make sense" and sent mixed messages to consumers.
Nutrition and obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, the medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute, worries that Health Check remains a badly flawedprogram. He is among those critics who believe that it encouragesoverconsumption of packaged, processed foods.
Freedhoff, who writes a blog called Weighty Matters, has compared Health Check to Smart Choices and found that, even with the new criteria, Health Check promotes less healthy choices than the U.S.-based Smart Choices -- which is a pretty serious indictment considering that the U.S. diet is considered among theworst in the world. Health Check, for example, allows more sodium in a number of different products.
Last year the federal Standing Committee on Health, in a report on childhood obesity, called on the government to establish a national front-of-product labelling program that would help lead consumers to healthy food choices.
Of course, the main job of healthy eating remains with consumers. Individuals and families have to take responsibility for what they bring home from the grocery store. The government can't do our shopping for us. However, it does seemreasonable to expect the government to take an interest in what are essentially cases of misleading advertising and at the very least to make sure that programs with the declared aim of improving eating habits don't have the opposite effect.