A few days ago, Yale University released the results of a study conducted around the television advertising of cereal to children. Also a few days ago, according to an editorial in this morning’s L.A. Times, the Food & Drug Administration made some noise about plans by the food industry to add “Smart Choices” labels to cereals and other foods which are high in sugar and other non-nutritious additives. On the one hand, I applaud the FDA for stepping up to protect consumers from misleading information, but on the other hand, I’m still furious it took this long. Really–the FDA is just noticing this now? For far too long, it has been too easy to slap a “Smart Choices” label on less-than-smart food.
Among the findings of the Yale study was research demonstrating that marketers in the cereal industry are pretty liberal with their health claims. For example, Lucky Charms, Golden Grahams, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cookie Crisp and Reese’s Puffs average three or more health claims per box. A look at the Nutrition Facts box on Lucky Charms reveals that although it does provide several vitamins, it also contains a lot of sugar–14 grams per serving, and that’s a one cup/35 gram serving. And, that one serving fills 10% of the recommended daily intake of both carbohydrates and sodium. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but on top of this, I doubt that most kids eating Lucky Charms are only eating one cup.
Ok, so Lucky Charms is only advertising its strong points. That’s typical; if I wanted to sell a product I would also choose to accentuate the positive while downplaying the negative. But the real trap here is that most people see those few positive things, and forget to ask about the rest. In my opinion, the fact that Lucky Charms is 41% sugar outweighs the benefit of the calcium and vitamin D in it, since I can get my calcium and vitamin D in lots of other ways that don’t also require me to overload on refined sugar. Plus, research shows that fewer consumers under 30 years old are looking at nutrition labels.
The application of media literacy to this issue is clear. Consumers and children are not asking questions about how something is being marketed to them (why are all the kids cereals on the bottom shelf at the supermarket?), nor can they identify the constructed message which may not tell the whole truth up front. Like I said, I’m glad the FDA is doing something, and I hope the momentum continues. Better late than never.