Obesity,Diets#Eating Disorders#Bullying#Fat Acceptance#Please Share
Rosie Schwartz is all for corporate transparency around food ... but says the responsibility for this one's all on us
File this under 'give me a break': As you may have heard last week, a San Diego mother has initiated a federal class action suit against the makers of the spread Nutella, for deceptively advertising the chocolate spread as a "nutritious and healthy breakfast."
In the lawsuit, she decries the "dangerous levels of saturated fat and processed sugars" in the chocolate breakfast spread and calls it "the next best thing to a candy bar."
As regular readers of this column probably know, I am all for putting the onus on corporations when it comes to disclosing the nasty nutritional details about their food products. But in this case, I have to say the responsibility lies with the consumer.
The lawsuit document states "the "plaintiff is not a nutritionist, food expert or food scientist; she is a lay consumer who did not possess the specialized knowledge Ferrero (the manufacturer) had which otherwise would have enabled her to associate high levels of saturated fat and refined sugar with disease." It goes on to say that she could not have discovered the company's deceptive practices earlier because, like nearly all consumers, she does not read scholarly publications describing the negative impact of some of the ingredients. (You can read the whole document here.)
Though nutrition fact boxes can sometimes be complicated, this is one case where just a basic knowledge of healthy eating would have revealed the product to be not so "nutritious and healthy." So how about taking some responsibility for feeding your family right and making smart food choices, rather than just listening to the message marketers want you to buy?
My older daughter learned about food marketing when she was about three years old. While watching a children's show, she heard an ad about a high sugar cereal that could be "part of a healthy breakfast". She raced over to me to excitedly let me know the "good news" as she wasn't allowed to eat these cereals for breakfast. That day, she got her first lesson in food marketing as I explained how ads work.
Clearly this San Diego woman relied upon advertising and never bothered to look at the Nutella jar itself. The ingredient list reads: sugar, palm oil, hazelnuts, cocoa, skim milk, reduced minerals whey (milk), lecithin as emulsifier (soy), vanillin: an artificial flavor. As ingredients are listed by amounts - the first being the largest and the last, the least - the woman would have readily seen that the product was mostly sugar and fat.
While I believe consumers need more transparency around the nutritional details of store-bought and restaurant products, I don't think we can cry victim any time a marketer tries to sell us a product based on claims that will make it attractive.
As consumers, we need to take some responsibility for what's on our plates too. If healthy eating is the goal, there's no excuse for not reading ingredient lists and nutrition information boxes on food packages. Parents shouldn't be surprised when feeding their kid chocolate for breakfast turns out to be not so healthy, nor should they be when a regular Happy Meal with fries instead of salad and sugar-laden soft drinks over low-fat milk translates into extra pounds for junior.
But here's where help is needed and not just for parents - for all Canadians. Being able to check out a menu board that lists nutrition information is a start. Having standardized serving sizes on food packaging is another necessity - otherwise you may need a calculator to compare various products to find the best one. Who has the time or the desire to do the math standing in your supermarket aisle?
We also need a government that places a priority on healthy eating. But Health Canada has been M.I.A. on their promises on trans fats for over a year. And it seems they've yet once again dropped the ball on a critical issue: they recently disbanded the Sodium Working Group, the very committee that Health Canada put together to strategize about how to reduce the sodium intake of Canadians (read my column on the problem with inaction on sodium here). While it's true that individuals do need to take responsibility for their shopping choices, we also require a wholesome food supply from which to choose. And never before have we had food choices that are so packed with sodium that trying to achieve recommended levels can be almost impossible unless you cook from scratch every night.
Health Canada, let's make a deal: Give Canadians the tools to make healthy eating choices and the food selections to make it a reality and you'll save a whole lot of money in the process. In return, we Canadians need to do a better job of taking ownership of our own eating and not being so surprised when a product laden with sugar and fat turns out to be anything but healthy.
That was the first of two "Give Me a Break" columns - stay tuned for part two with more ridiculousness next week. Chocolate for breakfast? That's just the half of it!
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide: Harvest the Power of Phyto Foods (Viking Canada). You can find her on Twitter @rosieschwartz.