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Sorting out logos on food products

April 8, 2009 7:30:00 AM PDT
Many food products are now wearing a number of small logos that tout health or safety in some way, creating some confusion and controversy."There's so much on wrappers these days I really feel for people trying to sift through it all," said dietitian Elizabeth Somer.

"It is logo overload at this point," said public health expert Chris Noonan. "Basically what the food manufacturers are doing is they're saying 'trust me, this is my logo and I'm now putting this on my food.'"

PepsiCo, who makes snack products like Doritos and Lays, uses the "SmartsChoice" seal. Kraft has "Sensible Solutions." Even exercise guru Bob Greene gave approval to a host of foods called the "Best Life" logo.

"I wanted to put a seal on foods that were not only respectful of calories, but added some health fullness to our diets," said Greene. "It's on Skinny Cow Ice Cream, it's on Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate."

Noonan is concerned by the growing number of logos on food boxes.

"I believe that most of these programs start out in the right direction," said Noonan. "However, what happens over time is these logos become used by so many food product manufacturers and then they kind of lose their meaning."

Most indicate better health in some way - often containing less fat, sugar or sodium and often in processed packaged goods, snack like in nature.

"The logo is on their own foods, so it is their governing body that decides. This is not the Food and Drug Administration or the United States Department of Agriculture sanctioned body," said Noonan.

"I think consumers are overwhelmed. You know, and a lot of products are so manipulative," said Somer.

Somer likes the American Heart Association logo with strict criteria on lower sodium and fat. Noonan supports the Whole Grain Council that ensures a food has sufficient whole grains.

But beware - the logos do not imply that the products are healthy in all aspects. For instance, some heart healthy cereals are low in fat and sodium free, but they're in no way low in sugar.

Some whole grain cereals contain whole grains, but can contain 3 teaspoons of sugar in a tiny suggested serving size of 2/3 cup and offer just 2 grams of fiber. A modest amount when compared to products that have much more whole grain ? in the range of 5 to 10 grams, yet don't have the whole grain logo.

That could partly be due to the fact that wearing a logo can cost companies a small fortune.

"For logos that are very popular it could be upwards of $500,000 a year to a couple million dollars a year," said Noonan.

Recent reports about these labels:
Consumer Reports on Health, February 2009 issue
Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 2, 2009


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