Claims of vitamin-fortified, sugary foods hard to swallow

cerealboxWalking down the cereal aisle at the supermarket, it’s impossible to miss the declarations of health benefits prominently located on the fronts of the colorful boxes. The Nutrition Facts Panel—a valuable consumer resource that lists a product’s sugar, salt, fat and calorie content—is usually printed on the side of the box. But do parents searching for a healthful choice even bother to read the nutritional information when the front of the box suggests the product is made of “whole grain goodness” and “immune-boosting” vitamins?

Unfortunately many don’t and that’s a real problem, says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, in a commentary co-authored with Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “We’ve arrived at the deplorable situation of Cocoa Krispies being marketed as a way to protect children from H1N1 flu, because it has a few added vitamins,” says Ludwig.

Consumers tend to believe claims on the front of packages, according to recent research, and perceive health statements to be endorsed by the government. But few health claims on food products have any basis in science at all. And unlike medications, food product labels don’t have to disclose their potential ill effects, such as obesity from high added sugar content.

Since the early 1900s, when the FDA prohibited food labels from bearing statements that were “false or misleading in any particular,” food manufactures and the federal government have been at odds over using unsubstantiated health claims in marketing. Now, the FDA is intending to examine the entire issue of front of package labeling, with the goal of making the systems used “…nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices.”

But Ludwig and Nestle think it’s logistically unfeasible to come up with system to validate health claims, and are advocating an all-out ban on front of package health claims. Read the excerpt of the commentary in JAMA and let us know what you think. Should misleading health claims be allowed? Is there any middle ground?