Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Policy Point Wednesday - Misleading Advertising, Packaging and Practices

Recently, both McDonalds and Taco Bell made national news for promoting products whose names suggested something more wholesome than the actual ingredients.  McDonalds lost the right to sell its original recipe Maple and Fruit Oatmeal in the state of Vermont - there, the recipe now contains pure maple syrup instead of sugar and "maple flavor," as it does everywhere else.  In a similar action, Taco Bell is being sued for calling the beef-and-filler mixture in its tacos "ground beef" when it contains water and starches from oats, wheat and corn (interestingly, Taco Bell is planning a counter-suit, claiming the non-beef ingredients are a "proprietary blend of spices and seasonings."  I'll be curious to see how this pans out.)

Standards for advertising are more lax in restaurants than they are in packaged foods, but even those can be misleading:  if you're not an ingredients-list reader, you might be surprised to find that a picture of blueberries on a package of muffins or cereal doesn't indicate there are blueberries inside.  There is no regulation on how an advertiser may present "blueberry crunchelets" or other manufactured blueberry analog, but at least the ingredients label will show there aren't any blueberries.  Another disturbing trend: structure/function claims -  a company is allowed to advertise a relationship between a food and a normal body structure or function (e.g. fiber reduces cholesterol) even if this relationship is unproven.  Another deceptive practice: using the FDA's guidelines for labeling trans fats (less than .5 grams per serving don't have to appear on a label,) girl scout cookies are labeled "trans-fat free," even though they do contain trans fats.

Unfortunately, fresh foods don't always come with labels - some avid-cook friends of mine were recently shocked to discover that the vibrant orange zest they'd been using from fresh oranges was more than likely colored with a non-food-safe dye!  Or, my personal pet peeve:  chickens can be labeled "natural" and "fresh" even if they have been injected with up to 15% of a saline solution (so you are paying for salty water instead of meat.)  Unfortunately, the food industry is geared more towards profit than towards the health of its consumers - it pays to read labels and ask questions!


Melissa Graham said...

Michele, Thanks so much for posting this. I don't have much time to head over to LTH very often - there's just so much, but the orange discussion is so eye-opening. I'm not sure where David's orange came from, but I did just learn that Florida oranges are greener in hue than California-grown (due to higher temps in FL), so it wouldn't surprise me if the dye in question was to hide this impurity.

Michele Hays said...

You're welcome, Melissa - right, and it bothers me that it's not a food-safe dye! Wouldn't it be better to advertise the oranges as good to eat (do what all the other food producers do - make up a new name and capitalize on the differences!)

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