When I discovered the so-called “iron man” cereal (you know the one) I was buying for my teenage son was one third sugar, I felt pretty gutted.
Wasn’t this supposed to create and fuel fit young men, like the athlete on the pack? That healthy, buff iron man, plus the lists of nutrition claims – like protein, calcium, ‘carbs’ – plastered all over the box were clearly doing their job: convincing me this was a healthy choice.
They got me hook, line and sugar.
To add insult to injury, I subsequently learned this cereal was also high in salt.
This happened before I worked in the food and health space, and before I learnt how to read the fine print on the nutrition information panel. So, like most parents making a decision in the cereal aisle, I was drawn to packaging that implied (or blatantly claimed) to be healthy.
Food manufacturers are still using these same old tricks, albeit with more sophisticated tools to make products appear more nutritious than they are.
Aussie parents are being hoodwinked by health claims everywhere they turn, especially when it comes to “everyday” foods aimed at kids, like lunch box snacks, fruit juice drinks and breakfast cereals.
Even products that don’t use words to claim to be healthy might still be plastered with images of rosy, impossibly clean kids surrounded by fruit and vegetables.
Last month, the Australian Federal Court found that a high-sugar toddler snack, Heinz Shredz, was misleading or deceptive in its marketing. This sent a powerful message to food manufacturers trying to exploit parents wanting to make healthy choices for their kids.
The packet boasted Shredz to be “99% fruit and veg”, visually comparing the product with whole fruits and vegetables. Along with the eye-grabbing nutrition claims, Heinz used earthy “natural” colours like green and brown, and cutesy illustrations of kids playing outdoors.
But with more than 60% sugar, this sticky, sweet, toddler snack was basically confectionary. Can you imagine what all that sugar does to a baby’s teeth? The court ruled that Heinz “ought to have known” what it was doing: giving this unhealthy product a healthy halo.
Food manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to use marketing tactics like this to trick parents. It’s no coincidence obesity rates of 2-5 year olds have doubled in the last 20 years.
Kids deserve a healthy start to life, and parents need transparent information, not manipulative marketing tactics. Ultimately, the Federal Government needs to step up and support parents.
My kids have grown up now and it’s been 10 or so years since I first learned the hard truth about that cereal. Nutri grain has since reformulated to have less sugar, which conveniently coincided with Kellogs’ decision to include a Health Star Rating on the pack.
Health Stars provide the point-of-sale information consumers need to cut through the marketing spin. Already, 74% of people have said Health Stars help them make healthier choices.
However, for the Health Star Rating System to work, it needs to be compulsory for all packaged foods. Right now, manufacturers can opt out, leaving them free to gloss over the fact that a food might not be as healthy as the package suggests.
And yes, there are wrinkles that need ironing out. The Health Star Rating currently sees sugar that derives from fruit concentrate as a good thing, even though it isn’t: it is sugar, not actual fruit. Due to this loophole, Shredz – with more than 60% sugar – might still have earned a reasonably high rating.
Health Stars also need to reflect the nutrition value of the food itself – not anything that might be added to it. Until recently, Milo and Ovaltine gave themselves a higher rating that factored in skim milk. Fortunately these stars have since been removed, although neither brand has replaced it with a Health Star Rating that actually reflects what’s in the tin.
Our kids are getting around a third of their energy from junk food. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and 13 different cancers. Studies suggest that people who were overweight during childhood are more at-risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity-related death.
Given the size and scale of the problem, the Federal Government’s lack of concrete policy action beggars belief. Parents are fighting an uphill battle against the Big Food industry’s million dollar marketing budgets. A mandatory, loophole-free, Health Star Rating system is one simple solution to help make the healthy choice the easy choice for parents. Our children deserve better.