Last week the Federal Trade Commission released its follow-up report on how the food industry markets to children. The agency praised companies for minor improvements in the nutritional profile of some products aimed at children. I asked registered dietitian Andy Bellatti for his take on the FTC’s approach.
MS: What’s your overall reaction to the FTC’s nutrition analysis in the report?
AB: The report unfortunately congratulates companies for making the most minimal of efforts to market healthier foods, and fails to address nutritional concerns that go beyond an added gram of fiber here or a removed half gram of sugar there.
MS: What’s problematic about FTC’s take on sugary cereals?
AB: This report touches on “the virtual elimination of marketing to children of the most sugary cereals – those with 13g or more sugar per serving.” This is framed as a positive development, but the more pressing issue – intake of added sugar among American children being much higher than the recommendations put out by the likes of the American Heart Association – is ignored. Moreover, a cereal that contains an “acceptable” 9 grams of sugar per serving provides 75% of the recommended daily limit of added sugar for a 6-year-old.
Especially troubling is how this report fosters the illusion that most children’s cereals are a healthful choice, with the only problem being high sugar content. In reality, most children’s cereals are nutritionally empty. Their vitamins and minerals are added during processing, after the grains (ironically) have been stripped of their natural nutrients. Intrinsically, these cereals offer very little nutrition because they are mainly composed of processed grain starch.
Compared to a minimally processed, 100% whole grain breakfast like oatmeal, the nutrition of most kids’ cereals is dismal. Oatmeal is not only higher in protein, it also offers soluble fiber (effective at lowering cholesterol) and unique antioxidants and phytonutrients that confer a variety of health benefits. It would be more beneficial if the FTC pointed out that a serving of Froot Loops with 8 grams of sugar per serving (down from 11 grams of sugar per serving) is still far from a healthful breakfast choice.
MS: What do you think about the FTC’s take on beverages?
AB: It is highly problematic that 100% juice products are considered to be the same gold standard as plain water. While 100% juice is applauded as a beverage “without added sugar,” the report fails to mention that fruit juice is, very simply, sugar water. The health benefits of whole fruit are not available from fruit juice. Not only is dietary fiber processed out – so are many nutrients along with healthful antioxidants and phytochemicals. One hundred percent juice actually belongs in the “empty calories” category because it delivers a similar caloric load to soda without any significant nutrition.
MS: How does FTC’s focus on sodium miss the bigger picture?
AB: Because the FTC uses the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as a guide, the agency falls prey to nutritionism. In all categories, sodium is highlighted as a nutrient to minimize. While it is true that curbing dietary sodium is healthful, it is just as important to consume enough potassium and magnesium. The report touches on potassium levels (which, other than in dairy, are very low across the mentioned food categories), but fails to make a crucial point: the more processed a food is, the more potassium it loses.
Adding potassium to foods is difficult for food companies because it is costly and, in many instances, can impart an “off” flavor to foods. Most children’s cereals provide paltry amounts of potassium, and will very likely continue to do so as it is a much more difficult reformulation than adding a sprinkle of whole grain or removing a gram of added sugar.
While a 10, 15, or even 25 percent reduction of sodium in packaged foods might seem significant, these products tend to offer minimal amounts of magnesium and potassium, so even with a sodium reduction they are not as healthful as less processed foods.
MS: What else do you think FTC missed in its nutrition analysis?
AB: This report congratulates companies on reformulating products and setting their own standards for “better-for-you” and “healthier” products, but does not touch on the very important issue of ingredients. Are any of these foods or beverages achieving their lower “added sugar” numbers by utilizing artificial sweetener, as is the case with Kraft’s Capri Sun Roaring Waters juice drink, which is sweetened with a mixture of corn syrup and sucralose?
Are any of these products made with unhealthy highly processed plant oils (i.e.: corn, cottonseed)? Is there any concern about the inclusion of artificial dyes in foods marketed to children? What about the rampant use of genetically modified byproducts in many foods marketed to children? Also, surprisingly, there is no mention of misleading or deceptive health claims used to sell products marketed to children.
By failing to mention these issues – or even ask those questions – the FTC is sending the message that product reformulation is allowable – and even encouraged – at any cost.