“Health-Claim Jumping” at the Winter Fancy Food Show

This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, director of nutrition labeling at Palate Works. She recently visited the San Francisco Fancy Food Show.

For 35 years, the Fancy Food Show has been the trade show of all things tasty, gourmet and upscale. Many food products are launched there, including an increasing number dished up as “healthy” or “better for you,” due to evolving consumer demand.

In fact, the “top 5 food trends” for 2010 just announced by NASFT (the trade association that produces the show) include “good-for-you foods”. This “trend,” brewing for most of the 20 years that I have been attending the show, has proven a smart business move for a number of brands.

Whether any of the 100,000+ exhibited products really nailed the “taste + nutrition” prize was my focus again this year in San Francisco. And once again, how a company uses nutrition claims separated those that know their nutrition and labeling from those that don’t. Here are three examples.

1. “High in antioxidants” is still popular and misused. It was applied liberally at the show by chocolate, tea and processed fruit products in particular, despite regulations prohibiting its use on anything with less than 10% of Daily Value for vitamins A, C or E, or selenium (i.e., antioxidants with an established RDA – Recommended Daily Allowance). Processed acai, pomegranate and blueberry juices have insignificant amounts of these antioxidants per serving, as does brewed tea. They may have other antioxidants (as does just about every plant-based food out there, at least until processing), but without an established DV (daily value) and substantiating data, no claim is allowed (otherwise there’s no level, credible playing field).

This tasty chocolate product in a cute tin appeared to be on the right eco and social bandwagons, but fell off along the nutrition trail:

The “peace” referred to is one nugget (about the size of a dried corn kernel), a small fraction of the full-container serving, for which nutrition is shown (but without proper Nutrition Facts formatting, and no sub-ingredients listed for the “glaze”) here:

No mention of those antioxidants. The booth representative also described the product as “low in sugar,” even though there is no such claim allowed, and with 14 grams this wouldn’t qualify anyway. In fact, the reason the product is slightly lower in fat and calories than most chocolate confections of the same weight is because sugar is higher.

The competitive snack foods category flew the flags of “trans fat-free” (allowed if simply stating “0 g” or “no” trans fat for anything with less than ½ gram) and “gluten-free” (not yet defined), even on products that never would contain trans fat or gluten anyway (e.g., corn-based snacks cooked in oil). This seems to be gaining shelf cred over “cholesterol-free,” which still adorns (usually against regulations) vegetable oils that never had it.

2. Other snacks are trying the “vegetables inside” implication, such as these “lightly salted” “garden” Veggie Straws with 30% less fat than potato chips,

and a colorful illustration of all the veggies that you’d expect to find inside…

…until a glance at the Nutrition Facts and ingredients uncovers a mountain of sodium, little fiber, minute amounts of powdered veggies (for color), and little in common with potato chips (instead, they use highly processed potato starch that lacks the original fiber and vitamins of potatoes):

The high vitamin C content (20%) is probably incorrect, because everything is dried/processed.

3. Healthy” and “low in fat and calories” claims continue to appear everywhere. This brand got plenty of buzz (maybe it was the free yellow tote bags or the token amount of hemp inside?) and took a page from industry and media’s still-nascent knowledge of regulated claims:

The product web site proclaims the chips “ultra light and low in fat and calories,” and from the packaging one might expect “superior” nutrition from the hemp (which, like any seed, provides primarily unsaturated fats, plus fiber and protein)…

Then again, this product doesn’t look any better than other extruded, processed starch snacks out there:  high in sodium (17% of the DV), low in fiber, and no significant vitamin or mineral content. It can’t claim “low calorie” because it’s over 40 calories, nor “low in fat,” since it has more than 3 g fat per 1 oz serving – automatically disqualifying it from using “healthy”.

To summarize, food companies will do themselves (and consumers) a favor if they use only claims that are allowed and accurate, and master the better-for-health before the better-for-marketing approach.

Plain nuts, anyone?

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail[AT] yahoo [DOT] com.

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  • http://sweettater.wordpress.com Katie (Sweet Tater)

    what a great post. i wish the public at large understood that you can’t take labels and packaging at face value.