Expert Commentary

Claiming health: Front-of-package labeling of children’s food

2011 report by the Prevention Institute examining the nutritional qualities of 58 children's products with front-of-the-package labeling.

For more than a decade marketers of prepared foods have used “front of package” labeling to promote the supposed health benefits of their products to consumers. Today supermarket shelves are lined with items labeled “low in calories” or “better for you” aimed at children and their parents. As concerns have grown about childhood obesity, however, the veracity of these claims has come into question.

A 2011 report by the Prevention Institute, “Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food,” looked at the nutritional qualities of 58 children’s products with front-of-package labeling. The items chosen were from a list compiled by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an industry group with the stated goal of “encouraging healthier dietary choices.” Items on the list must meet certain self-developed nutrition criteria and in turn manufacturers agree to limit their children-focused advertising to products on the list.

The report compared the actual nutritional content of these items with criteria derived from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the National Academies of Science. The findings included:

  • More than half (57%) of the products qualified as high in sugar; 95% contained added sugar, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, glucose, brown sugar and fruit juice concentrate.
  • Over half (53%) did not contain fruits or vegetables. Of the fruits and vegetables found, half came from just two: tomatoes and corn.
  • Almost one quarter (24%) of prepared foods were high in saturated fats; more than one third (36%) of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium.
  • Many of the products used artificial colors, including 13% of the beverages, 40% of the cereals and 50% of the snacks.
  • Overall, 84% of study products did not meet one or more nutrient criteria.

One of the authors summed up the study by saying that “more often than not, companies are telling parents food is healthy when it’s not.” The study concludes by recommending that the FDA develop uniform front-of-the-box labeling and require its use.

Tags: children, consumer affairs, nutrition, obesity

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