Who’s responsible for the epidemic of obesity and other diet-related diseases anyway? A recent Forbes.com article by Anastasia Killian defends food companies by arguing that “consumers are ultimately responsible for choosing what to buy and how much to consume.” It’s a valid point, frequently asserted, with which I can’t disagree. And “so long as [the] products are legal,” Killian writes, companies have every right to advertise them. Again, agreed. Many companies, moreover, have designed programs that “seek to empower the consumer to make good choices.” For the consumer to make good choices, however, he has to have the facts, and that’s where the trouble begins.
Rather than disparage advertising, or what Killian describes as “truthful commercial speech,” she suggests that “anti-business” activists concern themselves with advancing educational initiatives of their own.
Let’s educate ourselves then. Let’s look at just a tiny sample of the ways in which food companies misrepresent their products.
1. “0 Grams of Trans Fat” Can Add Up:
Food companies are required by the FDA to list trans fat content on nutrition facts labels only for products that contain 0.5 grams or more per serving. I bet not just a few companies manipulate serving sizes for some products so as to be able to claim that they are trans fat-free. Two or three servings, then, may add up to one gram or more of trans fat, and over the course of a day consumers may easily take in far more than they’re aware of and far more than is healthy.
2. “Blueberry” Products That Don’t Have Any Blueberries:
A picture of fresh blueberries on a product package means that it has blueberries, doesn’t it? It doesn’t, in fact. As reported by NaturalNews.com, a bag of blueberry bagels sold at Target, for example, contains fewer actual blueberries than “blueberry bits,” which are made of sugar, corn cereal, modified corn starch, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial flavor, cellulose gum, salt and Blue #2, Red #40, Green #3 and Blue #1 for that blueberry color. General Mills’s Total Blueberry Pomegranate Cereal (containing zero blueberries and zero pomegranate), Kellogg’s Blueberry Muffin Frosted Mini-Wheats and Betty Crocker’s Blueberry Muffin Mix are a few of the other products that, despite appearances, are blueberry-deficient.
3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made of Other Oils:
Fraud is rampant in the olive oil industry, and it remains the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, according to Tom Mueller, author of “Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.” Extra virgin olive oil is often blended with less expensive oils, such as hazelnut and sunflower, then bottled and sold as the genuine article. In fact, the only way for the average consumer to be sure of extra virgin olive oil, as Mueller tells the New Yorker, is to buy it from a mill, “where you can see the fresh olives turned into oil, and get to know the miller—in an industry where the label means so little, personal trust in the people who have made and sold it is important.”
Packaging, labels and ingredients lists are just another medium for advertising designed to get consumers to buy products — often by suggesting that they are healthier or higher-quality than they are.
Food companies will continue to defend these practices as an inalienable right of doing business. Activists and journalists, meanwhile, are doing what they can to uncover the facts and educate the public. In the current food environment, the average consumer is impossibly disadvantaged, requiring expertise in food chemistry, production methods, labeling laws, politics and more in order to understand what’s really in processed foods and how they are made — which is why government has to help. It’s just not a level playing field. Yes, consumers are ultimately responsible for what they eat, but the savviest among them can’t make good choices based on misinformation and, in some circumstances, outright lies.
Photo Credit: Vegan Feast Catering