Parents shouldn't look to the labels on the front of food packages for guidance on picking the healthiest products for their kids, says an alarming new Prevention Institute study. Released today through advocacy coalition Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity Environments, Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children's Food found that 84% of products examined didn't meet basic nutritional standards.
"We did the study because we want to be sure that what parents see is what they get," says study author and nutritionist, Juliet Sims. "The results shocked us. More often than not, companies are telling parents food is healthy when it's not."
The study looked at the front-of-package labeling on fifty-eight "Better-for-You" children's products—those that manufacturers tout as their most nutritious. The nutritional content was compared against nutritional criteria derived from the US Dietary Guidelines and the National Academies of Science. In spite of the claims on the labels, study findings reveal:
- More than half (57%) of the study products qualified as high sugar, and 95% of products contained added sugar.
- More than half (53%) were low in fiber.
- More than half (53%) of products did not contain any fruits or vegetables; of the fruits and vegetables found, half came from just 2 ingredients—tomatoes and corn.
- 24% of prepared foods were high in saturated fats.
- More than 1/3 (36%) of prepared foods & meals were high in sodium.
Claiming Health underscores that the current system—which counts on food companies to decide what information they include on their front-of-package labels—is broken. "Without FDA regulation, instead of giving more information to parents struggling to make the best decisions for their kids, the system is deceiving them," explains Juliet Sims. "The question is, do food companies want to be on the side of parents and give them helpful information, or don't they?"
Among the worst offenders:
- Kid Cuisine All Star Chicken Breast Nuggets. The label on this package advertises "white meat chicken, grains and vegetables". Yet this product falls into the high-fat category—and the only vegetable it contains is corn.
- Dora the Explorer Fruit Shapes promotes itself as "naturally flavored, 90 calories per pouch, and gluten free," and features Dora, a popular television cartoon character, prominently on the box. What the front of the package neglects to reveal is that 58% of this product's calories come from sugar.
- Apple Jacks touts its high fiber, low fat content, but derives nearly half (48%) of its calories from sugar—in fact, sugar is the primary ingredient, coming first on the ingredient list.
Prevention Institute and Strategic Alliance are calling on the FDA to step in and require uniform labeling standards for all products that use front-of-package labels. Nearly 40% of total calories consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds come from empty calories—unhealthy fats and added sugars. Only 21% of children and adolescents eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. "Chronic diseases like diabetes are skyrocketing, and children are predicted to have a shorter life span than their parents. Parents want healthy food for their kids." states Prevention Institute's Executive Director Larry Cohen. "They need food labels that reveal what's really inside, instead of emphasizing one healthy aspect to trick them into buying something fundamentally unhealthy. Mandatory front-of-package labeling guidelines will move us closer to food packages parents can trust."
Read Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children's Food. For press materials, please visit the Claiming Health press page, and read the press coverage.
The Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity Environments is a coalition of nutrition and physical activity advocates in California. The Strategic Alliance is shifting the debate on nutrition and physical activity away from a primary focus on personal responsibility and individual choice to one that examines corporate and government practices and the role of the environment in shaping eating and activity behaviors.
Strategic Alliance is coordinate through Prevention Institute, a national non-profit organization established in 1997, dedicated to placing prevention at the center of efforts to improve community health, equity and well-being. The Institute specializes in building capacity among community-based organizations and government agencies at the local, state, and federal level to develop strategies for environmental, policy, and systems-level changes to prevent illness and injury in the first place. Find us at www.preventioninstitute.org.