Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday - Marketing Health

Most of the snacks in the food desert have two things in common:  one - they're ready-to-eat, and two - they're shelf-stable.  Considering that purveyors have limited shelf space that can't be wasted on a gamble, it's understandable that these two criterion drive most of the "fringe food" choices.  Unfortunately, to make a food both ready to eat and shelf-stable requires some manipulation; sugar, fat, and salt are common preservatives.  A steady diet of foods manipulated to maximize profit and minimize loss rather than to maximize health and minimize disease is the root cause of many negative health issues in the food desert.

Recently, I became concerned about another trend: the marketing of "healthy" foods preserved in the same manner as fringe foods.  Right now, parents everywhere - even in the food desert - are opting for foods that make health claims on the label: companies imply that their packaged are good or better choices with a number of new labeling systems.   Unfortunately, more often than not, the foods themselves are still salty, fatty, sugary fringe foods.   For instance, you may have noticed many sugar candies now positioning themselves as fat-free - a claim that, while true, doesn't make the sugary snacks a nutritious choice. There's a wide range of opinions about organics, but whatever you think of them, some organics are offered in fatty, heavily-sugared, heavily-salted forms that are not significantly better than conventional chips. 

To an educated consumer, these distinctions are easy to make: we all know that a bowl of brown rice is going to be better for you than even the healthiest fried chips - but to the uneducated consumer, health claims on a food label have serious implications.  I have firsthand experience seeing well-meaning parents offer sugary, fatty canned nutritional shakes, or worse,  rehydration solution,  only because the labels state that the products are approved by pediatricians.  A label-reading parent would see that the "clinically-proven" milkshake has about 4 times the fat, twice the sugar, and less protein compared to milk, and the "pediatrician-recommended" rehydration solution is basically salty sugar water.  Both exist to address very specific medical conditions, and should not be offered as food.  However, while rehydration solution is offered in the drug section of the store, and specifically states it should be offered "at the first sign of dehydration and vomiting,"  nutritional shakes are often shelved with foods, and state that they can be used to address the nutritional needs of "picky eaters" - which is incredibly ambiguous (heck, even my own child is picky at times.)  These two disparate examples show how difficult it can be for parents to make good choices if they don't have the resources to understand the labels.  While part of the solution is addressing how food is marketed, educating parents remains the most critical need in the food desert.

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