Guess Which “Food Product” was Labeled a Health Food by Nutrition “Experts”?

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The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group that represents 75,000 registered dieticians and other nutrition professionals, has launched a new Kids Eat Right label.

It serves as a stamp of approval of sorts, designed to help families make healthier food choices while shopping.

Last week, the group announced the first product that will brandish their new nutrition seal…

Kraft Singles.

That’s right – the first product to be adorned with the logo is one with packaging that includes the descriptor “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”

Here’s what it looks like:

This is probably a good time to point out that by the FDA’s standards, Kraft isn’t even ALLOWED to refer to Singles as “cheese” because the word indicates that a product is made with at least 51 percent real cheese.

But, hey – let’s emblazon its packages with a logo that makes it appear to be a “right” choice for kids to eat.

The “Kids Eat Right” campaign is meant to “raise awareness that the diets of America’s kids are lacking in three important components– dairy, calcium and vitamin D,” according to a statement from AND.

Oh, but wait: AND wants us to know that the appearance of the logo on Kraft Singles is NOT an endorsement or seal of approval. It’s more like an ad for Kids Eat Right, according to the academy. You see, it’s sort of a reversal of how most ads work: Kraft paid the advertiser – the academy – an undisclosed amount to place the logo on their product.

Ryan O’Malley, AND spokesman, explains it like this:

“Kraft is putting the Kids Eat Right logo [on its packaging and] saying Kraft is a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right, not vice versa. The academy has never once endorsed any product, brand or service, and we never will.”

He also said he hopes the logo will help direct people who buy Kraft Singles to the Kids Eat Right website. Only products the academy collaborates with can display the Kids Eat Right logo, and as of now, there are no plans for a second product, O’Malley said.

As the first – and perhaps ONLY – product that will bear the logo, Kraft Singles sure is an odd choice, isn’t it? The “cheese” product, and other food…items made by the company, are hardly shining examples of healthful food choices, especially for growing children.

Mary Beth Whalen, AND executive director, echoed O’Malley’s comments in an email to The New York Times:

“The Kids Eat Right logo on Kraft Singles packaging identifies the brand as a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right. It also serves to drive broader visibility to KidsEatRight.org, a trusted educational resource for consumers.”

But Kraft itself told The Times it was the first time the academy was endorsing a product.

This goes beyond the simple slapping of a logo on a product anyway: it is the first piece of what will be a THREE-YEAR collaboration between AND and Kraft.

Kari Ryan, director of nutrition, science and regulatory affairs at Kraft, explains:

“We saw the synergies in taking our mission and the mission of the academy and making them into one to drive education and awareness around the nutrient needs of children and how to address them,” said Ms. Ryan, who is a registered dietitian and member of the academy.

Translation: Cha-ching!

Marketing the singles directly to families through the Kids Eat Right logo just might be part of a strategy to improve Kraft’s bottom line. Last month, the company’s new CEO, John Cahill, declared that 2014 was a “difficult and disappointing year,” and announced the departure of the company’s top execs for finance, marketing, and R&D.

But would an organization like AND, the “world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals”, who are “committed to improving the nation’s health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy” sell out in such a way?

History suggests it would. In fact, financial ties between AND and Big Food go way back. In 2013, food industry lawyer and researcher Michele Simon documented their mutually beneficial relationship in her report titled And Now a Word From Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?

Companies like PepsiCo, Kellogg, and ConAgra regularly attend AND’s meetings, where they make presentations to dietitians, hold seminars and parties, and provide free samples of their products.

Marion Nestle, Ph.d, M.P.H., a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, shared the news on her site Food Politics, exclaiming “you can’t make this stuff up.”

“Kraft is well known as a sponsor of AND,” Nestle wrote. “Such seals are usually money-raising gimmicks. I’m wondering if ‘proud supporter of’ means that Kraft pays AND for use of this seal. If so, I’d like to know what the seal costs.”

The absurdity of the Kraft-AND collaboration did not go unnoticed by comedian Jon Stewart, who mocked it on The Daily Show (fast forward to 4:30 for the specific bit, if desired):

Thankfully, some nutrition professionals are speaking up about the issue and have launched a #RepealTheSeal campaign (you can sign their petition here).

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When defending the Kraft-AND partnership, Ryan pointed out that 80 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 4 to 18 do not get enough calcium, while almost half of all children’s diets lack adequate vitamin D. Although Kraft Singles contain calcium and vitamin D, they also contain 200 milligrams of sodium per slice. According to Kraft’s website, a grilled cheese sandwich with two of its single slices contain 870 milligrams of sodium…40 percent of a child’s daily allowance.

If the AND’s intention is to help improve children’s health, why don’t they offer the use of their Kids Eat Right logo on whole foods that contain calcium and vitamin D, like milk, (real) cheese, yogurt, salmon, sardines, egg yolks, and dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale, mustard, and collard greens?

Instead, they chose to partner with a company that sells processed junk food, including an (in)famous macaroni and cheese product that happens to be the subject of a current recall because some boxes of the product may contain small pieces of metal.

The lesson in all of this? Just because an organization sounds authoritative doesn’t mean you should trust it. Words like “academy” can throw off even the most careful label-scrutinizers.

When in doubt, follow the money.

Additional Resources:

What I Know When I Eat Locally

‘Clean Labels’: How Manufacturers Are Hiding How Your Food Was Made

About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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