CSPI Urges FDA Crackdown on False & Misleading Food Labeling
New Report Makes Case for Ending Food Labeling Chaos
December 29, 2009
WASHINGTON—Can orange juice really help prevent or treat arthritis? That's the implication on the label of a Minute Maid orange juice fortified with glucosamine hydrochloride "designed to help protect healthy joints." And it’s exactly the kind of misleading health claim that the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants the federal government to stop. Today the group is sending the Food and Drug Administration a 158-page report that documents some of the most egregious examples of false claims, ingredient obfuscations, and other labeling shenanigans.
Though under the Obama Administration the FDA is sending more warning letters to food manufacturers about misleading labeling, many major companies, including Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Kraft, General Mills, and Nestlé, continue to confuse or defraud consumers about the health effects, ingredients, or "natural"-ness of their products. Some notable offenders include:
Kellogg: On labels for Smart Start Strawberry Oat Bites cereal, the company deliberately misreads a report from the Institute of Medicine to claim, falsely, that consumers can eat 125 grams—more than half a cup—of added sugars per day. CSPI says FDA should establish a Daily Value for added sugars, require its disclosure on Nutrition Facts panels, and provide definitions for terms such as "low sugar."
Nestlé: Labels for the company's Carnation Instant Breakfast misleadingly claim that its antioxidants "help support the immune system." While it is true that serious deficiencies in vitamins A, C, and E and other antioxidants can lead to serious health problems, consuming this or other products that make this common claim won’t help ward off colds, the flu, or other maladies.
Kashi: A Kellogg-owned brand, Kashi falsely claims that the green tea in its Heart to Heart Instant Oatmeal will "support healthy arteries." The FDA does have a so-called qualified health claim for green tea that relates to cancer but has not agreed that green tea can protect arteries or fend off heart disease.
Glacéau: The Coca-Cola-owned product bears a confusing double-column Nutrition Facts label that gives the impression that a 20-ounce bottle of VitaminWater contains multiple servings. Yet the company knows full well that the product is typically consumed by one person on a single occasion, delivering 125 calories, not the 50 in a "serving." CSPI says the dual-column format should be barred.
Edy's: Labels for Dibs Bite Sized Snacks boast "0g trans fat!"—giving the impression that the product is heart-healthy. Yet a serving of this ice cream snack has 16 grams of saturated fat—80 percent of the daily value. CSPI says the FDA should prohibit companies from boasting of "0 grams trans" on foods with more than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. FDA already has similar limits on "cholesterol free" and "healthy" claims.
Thomas': Labels for Thomas' Hearty Grains English Muffins claim that the food is "made with the goodness of whole grain” and “made with whole grains." Yet the primary ingredient is "unbleached enriched wheat flour," meaning white flour. The product has more water than whole wheat flour, which is the third ingredient.
Gerber: Labels for Gerber Graduates Juice Treats—a product intended for pre-schoolers—picture an abundance of fruit: oranges, grapes, peaches, cherries, pineapple, and raspberries. Yet there is no cherry, orange, or pineapple in the product, and less than 2 percent is raspberry and apple juice concentrate. The main ingredients are corn syrup and sugar, providing 17 grams—or about four teaspoons—of refined sugars per serving.
The main ingredients are corn syrup and sugar, not the abundance of fruit shown on the package, providing 17 grams—or about four teaspoons—of refined sugars per serving.
Minute Maid: The words "all natural" appear on Minute Maid's Cranberry Apple Cocktail. Yet the product contains added citric acid—meaning citric acid that didn’t occur naturally in the juice. FDA has long held that adding citric acid disqualifies a company from claiming the food is all natural. This product also contains high-fructose corn syrup—the end result of a highly complex series of chemical changes whereby corn starch is converted to glucose and fructose. FDA should disallow "all natural" claims on food that contain HFCS, according to CSPI.
"For far too long, some of the world's biggest food manufacturers have designed their labels either to exaggerate the amount of healthy ingredients, or to imply that the food has magical, drug-like qualities that could prevent or treat various health problems," said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. "The Bush Administration gave manufacturers more and more license to deceive. But the party’s over—or at least it should be."
In May, the FDA instructed General Mills to drop exaggerated heart disease and cancer claims on labels and its web site for its Cheerios cereal. And in October, FDA expressed concern over the industry-wide Smart Choices front-of-packaging labeling program. Both moves were praised by CSPI and were seen as a sign that the agency will more aggressively police food labeling.
CSPI wants the agency to prohibit qualified health claims for foods. Unlike "health claims," which must meet a "significant scientific agreement" standard, qualified health claims include disclaimers explaining that the scientific evidence is uncertain. CSPI also wants the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prohibit misleading "structure/function" claims that a given food will "support" or "maintain" healthy immune systems, joints, vision, and so on. Consumers simply can't distinguish between stringently regulated health claims, which require FDA approval, and structure/function claims, which don’t, according to CSPI.
"Consumers need honest labeling so they can spend their food dollars wisely and avoid diet-related disease," said CSPI senior staff attorney Ilene Ringel Heller, co-author of the report. "Companies should market their foods without resorting to the deceit and dishonesty that's so common today. And, if they don't, the FDA should make them."