Walking through the cereal aisle at West Side Market at 110th Street and Broadway, serene scenes of easygoing farm life surrounded Tiago Silva.
On one cereal box, fragile wheat stalks shimmered in dawn’s early rays while, across the aisle on another, verdant rolling hills were topped with a tiny red farmhouse where, presumably, ma’ and pa’ were hard at work baking a healthy, nutrient-packed product for the whole family.
Silva, a 25-year old graduate student whose shopping cart was filled with fresh grapes, yogurt and whole grain rice, pointed to another box. Its package boasted a 100 percent natural, low-fat formula created at a family-owned farm nestled among golden hills of a small village in Switzerland.
“If you compare the packages, these guys are trying to portray a healthy image, or healthier than average,” he said about the box. “But I wouldn’t say they are healthy.”
From the dairy aisle to the cereal shelves, New York’s groceries are crowded with foods whose package designs project exaggerated images of health and nutritional value. And while the multibillion-dollar organic food market continues to grow, manufacturers who create food the old fashioned way – by processing it with dozens of synthetic ingredients and preservatives – will try to keep up by jamming supermarket shelves with packages that make misleading claims about their foods’ functional value.
“Companies look at it as a marketing advantage,” said Erin Boyd, a registered dietician and nutrition supervisor for a public relations firm in Chicago that represents several food brands such as Snickers and Planters Peanuts. “They feel the consumer will look at their product in a better light if it seems to be better for the environment or better for their health.”
In 2007, the market for organic foods in the United States reached $20 billion, up nearly 20 percent from 2006, according to sales projections calculated by the Organic Trade Association, an association for businesses in the organic industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have strict definitions for the term “organic” and can levy strict fines up to $11,000 on a company that sells or labels an uncertified product as organic, according to the Organic Trade Association.
But food manufacturers can skirt these regulations and still project images that will resonate with the health conscious shopper by using earthy package designs and vague terms such as “healthy” or “natural,” which the FDA does not define.
“There are all kinds of different things on the packaging, like ‘all natural,’ but what does that mean?” said Deanne Torbert Dunning, a creative consultant who teaches courses on branding and imaging at the New School. “We’re totally sucked up into thinking things are really good for us when, if you look at the label, you’ll say ‘Ew, this isn’t good for me at all.’”
Companies also highlight sophisticated ingredients on their packages, knowing that terms like omega-3 or exotic-sounding botanicals carry a certain cachet.
Susanne Norwitz, a spokesperson for the Kellogg Company, said, “Claims included on our packaging are used to call out nutritional elements that resonate with our customers.”
David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group focusing on nutrition and health and food safety, said that manufacturers have gone overboard with these claims in an attempt to seize the market for health-conscious consumers willing to pay more for seemingly healthy foods.
| Joseph Feigenbaum, a veteran of New York's design world, and food shoppers discuss the misleading claims on food packages.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the food and beverage industry has been fascinated with functional foods,” Schardt said. “By adding or emphasizing these ingredients, companies are trying to lead consumers into thinking that this product is especially healthy and they hope consumers will be willing to pay more for it.”
One problem is that manufacturers use generic claims that could fool shoppers who lack a degree in nutritional science, according to Schardt.
Recently, food companies have been enthusiastic about promoting foods containing omega-3, a fatty acid found in almonds and fatty fish like salmon. In 2004, the FDA claimed that omega-3 could lower the risk of heart disease.
Schardt's group has conducted studies showing that only two forms of omega-3 acids are beneficial and that many companies will overstate their product’s omega-3 content.
According to the center's research conducted in October, the package for Silk Soymilk, which is distributed by a subsidiary of Dean Foods - the largest dairy processor in the world - boasts 400 milligrams of omega-3 per serving. But only eight percent of those omega-3s are the beneficial kind.
Many other products, such as Kashi Go Lean Crunch! cereal, advertise omega-3 content but do not specify whether or not the omega-3 acids are the beneficial kind, according to the center’s research.
“We hold all of Silk’s nutritional messaging to the highest possible standards of accuracy, said Sara Loveday, a spokesperson for WhiteWave Foods, Silk’s distributor. “All nutritional claims made by Silk, whether on packaging, in ads or online, are strictly factual, never unsubstantiated and are based on information approved by the Food and Drug and Administration.”
Sample cereal box shows common __ __health claims. (Graphic)
Cindy Joo-Kim, a mother who was picking out cereal at West Side Market with her young son, said she always checks the nutrition facts and tells her children to check them as well. “But the box will catch your eye,” she said.
The trend is not limited to food products.
In March, the makers of Airborne, a vitamin supplement whose label claims to boost the immune system and prevent the common cold, agreed to refund money to anyone who bought the product as part of a $23 million settlement in a false advertising lawsuit brought by a California man. Lawyers and nutritionists found that tablets of Airborne, whose package carries the folksy slogan “Created by a school teacher!” contained only a series of vitamins that are not proven to prevent the common cold.
Schardt said his organization is constantly pressuring the FDA to impose stricter standards about the language a company can use on its packaging. But responsibility also lies with the companies themselves to present an honest image on the box.
“It’s hard to believe that these companies don’t realize that they lack strong evidence for what they are claiming,” he said.
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Lisa Biagiotti, Dave Burdick and Yian Huang contributed to the production of this multimedia story.