Labels and Standards

What I find so bleesedly amusing about this recent article in the NY Times, is that you have Big Food complaining about standards that they had no hand in developing.

A brief overview for those not inclined to click on the link – Hannaford Brothers, a grocery store chain in New England, developed a system called Guiding Stars that rated the nutritional value of nearly all the food and drinks at its stores from zero to three stars. Out of all of the products they sell, only 23% received any stars at all. Left out of the star ratings included such notable products as, well nearly everything sold nuder the brand names of Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice. Also absent were most breakfast cereals that had been touting their “Heart Smart” and “Low-Sodium” labels that had been generously applied to their nutrional labels.

My favorite quote from the piece is thus:

“We don’t like the idea that there are good and bad foods out there, and these sort of arbitrary rating systems,ˮ said John Faulkner, director of brand communication at the Campbell Soup Company. The Healthy Request line of soup, he said, was “aligned with the government definition of what healthy is.ˮ

What Mr. Faulkner doesn’t want you to know is that there are actually three definitions the FDA uses to determine what is “healthy”.

  1. There’s the definition that defines the relationship between a food and it’s ability in reducing risk of a disease or health-related condition. For example: Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  2. There’s the definition that defines a relationship between the nutritional content of food or food product when compared against similar products, or they describe the level of a nutrient or dietary substance in the product.Think “Diet Coke” or “Lean Cuisine”, and you’ll have a good idea on what they’re getting at.
  3. Finally, there’s the definition of Healthy that describe the role of a nutrient ingredient and how it affects normal structure or function of the human body. ‘Calcium builds strong bones’ ‘fiber maintains bowel regularity’ are both fine examples of this definition.

The fact that there is several interpretations of ‘healthy’ is what allows companies such as Campbells Soup and ConAgra to muddy the waters of just how healthy their products are. A statement such as ‘Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are part of a balanced breakfast’ is a perfect example of this. What Kellogg’s is essentially saying is that Frosted Flakes is part of a healthy diet…as long as you eat other items that supply nutrients that Tony the Tiger missed and, oh yeah, don’t go eating eighteen bowls of the stuff per day, ’cause that’d be really bad. Replace Healthy Choice or Lean Cuisine for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and you’ll see how they get to say they are ‘healthy’

The next quote from the article made me laugh:

a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods, Stephanie Childs, said that her company would like to know how Hannaford concluded that many items in its Healthy Choice line did not merit any stars.

“This is surprising to us,ˮ Ms. Childs said. Healthy Choice, which offers a range of items from frozen meals to pasta sauces and deli meats, “has to use F.D.A.’s very stringent requirements for what is healthy.ˮ

Again, which definition of ‘healthy’ is Ms. Child’s talking about? Is she claiming that Healthy Choice Mesquite Grill Chicken helps maintains cell integrity in a consumer’s body, or that their Salsibury Steak helps prevent the gout? Or is she saying that having one serving of their product is reasonable if they don’t go overboard?

What it sounds like Hannaford Brothers has done with their rating system is to give more ‘stars’ to foods that meet the first and third definitions of healthy mentioned above, while giving no stars for the second definition. In essence, what they’re saying is that food companies don’t get a bonus credit for leaving out an excess of salt, sugar or fat, because it’s something they should be doing anyway. Or to put it another way, just because you choose to refrain from shooting a gun doesn’t mean you’re a pacifist.

Technorati Tags: Food Politics, Healthy, Labels

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