Do we really want to depend on corporations to tell us what food is healthy for us?  Earlier this week I was struck by two news items that put this issue front and center.

The first story is a legal settlement involving Nutella,the chocolate nut butter company. It involves misleading advertising that suggests that Nutella is a healthy food choice for your family. This got one consumer so irate that she started a class action suit.  And WON.  $3 million!

Now, I don’t know the ins and outs of the Nutella suit, except what I read and saw here, so I watched the TV ad again. Clearly, Nutella wants us to believe that this nut butter is nutritious for your family.  When I first saw this ad a few months back, I thought, “Wow, they really must have changed this chocolate treat since I was a college student.  Maybe I should check it out. That would be amazing…Nah…it’s just marketing.”

Customers feel duped

The second story is about Kashi, the hip “natural” food company that packages cereal products and targets those who want to eat right.  Their customers have complete confidence in this company’s healthy products. However, earlier this week they were in big trouble. A Rhode Island grocer decided not to carry Kashi any more, because the soy protein ingredient is genetically modified (gmo) and posted this sign. A customer snapped a photo and posted it on the web. The story went viral, and Kashi users were on the web blasting the company for betraying their trust.  Their customers had trusted this company’s marketing of “natural” products to mean that all of their products were organic. And, to make matters worse, there are those who found out for the first time that Kashi is not a small niche company, but is in fact, owned by the big corporate giant, Kelloggs.

So, when both of these articles came up on my screen, I just knew we had to talk about it.

Marketing messages verses truth

Field research was the first step.  I went to the grocery store and stood in the aisles reading labels.  I was rooting for Nutella to be the healthy choice that its advertising suggests.  On the front label where the product descriptions are written, it says, “hazelnut spread with skim milk and cocoa”.  It also states that it doesn’t contain artificial colors or artificial preservatives.  Sounds healthy, right? All good marketing messages.

Now, flip the package over to where the Nutrition Facts are –or the Truth.  The ingredients are required to be listed in order of the amount used. The first ingredient is sugar. The amount of sugar in a serving of two tablespoons is 21 grams or just over 5 teaspoons!  (calculation: 4 grams per teaspoon). The suggested amount of total sugar consumption per day is only 6-9 teaspoons for adults.  Also, of the 200 calories in a serving, half are fat.

As I walked down the cereal aisle to find Kashi, I remembered one of my favorite marketing words — Authenticity.  It’s just as important as corporate marketers’ favorites –the five P’s: product, placement, price, promotion, and people.  But the real question is one of authenticity.  Do corporations walk the walk they talk?

Calling the source

I looked on the nutrition labels of many of Kashi’s 40 plus products and found that some are certified organic and others not.  Some use the soy protein and others do not.  One multi-grain hot cereal had a portion so small that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually eating that amount for breakfast.  So, confused, I found a phone number on the side panel and called them.  I was immediately transferred to Yvette in customer support.

Yvette had a straight forward manner and answered all my questions.  She referred me to the website for some answers.  When I explained that I had been on their website that morning and couldn’t find the information, she let me know that it would be updated that afternoon.  The only defensive stance Yvette took was in letting me know that the campaign against Kashi was really about the entire cereal industry’s use of gmo’s, not just them.

Here’s my impression about Kashi. They are on the journey perhaps as well as a corporation can be.  Yvette pointed out to me that it is almost impossible not to have some genetically modified ingredients in their products, because 80% of the food grown in the USA is genetically modified.  Think corn and soy.  However, Yvette also told me that Kashi has hired a 3rd party company (she didn’t know which one) to certify their ingredients as organic.  By 2015, according to their website, as the company develops new products, all ingredients will be non-gmo and 70% of the ingredients will be organic.  They are trying to live up to the promise of their brand, but they aren’t there yet, and that’s what got them into trouble.  Pretending vs.Truth. That fine balance is called marketing. That is, creating excitement and demand for the product/brand and if it’s not quite true, oh well.  It’s okay as long as it sells.

Truth in advertising matters

Meanwhile, I’m not letting our fellow consumers off the hook.  Listen, and I mean it.  I have very mixed feelings about the Nutella truth in advertising suit.  On the one hand, I’m glad their shenanigans got the company in hot water.  It is a great dessert spread for crepes as shown on their web site, but as part of a healthy breakfast choice to get children to eat their bread? Really?!  As for the mom who won the class action who said that she cannot be responsible for reading every label on every product she purchases because it would take too long, I was blown away.  If not her, then who will do it for her family?  Nevertheless, this mom sent a big shot across the bow of the food industry – truth in advertising matters.

Deciphering food labels

And so does personal responsibility.  When we opt for packaged food instead of whole food, each of us is responsible for knowing what is wrapped inside. Reading labels is an important, no essential, life skill.  Remember, the front of a product’s label is all about marketing words which are not regulated.  Words like natural, which Kashi uses, or “healthy” are essentially meaningless. The back of the label is essential for understanding the health benefits of the ingredients and what’s been added.  If the numbers are confusing, then just use the shorthand of reading the serving size and ask yourself, is this realistic?  Look at the nutritional analysis that’s important to you.  Then, read the number of ingredients on the label.  The fewer, the better.  And, remember the old adage; if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as an ingredient or you can’t pronounce it, think twice before purchasing.

Here’s an example.  I compared Nutella and Trader Joe’s Almond Peanut Butter.  Nutella has 7 ingredients and the Almond Peanut Butter has one – almonds.

I rest my case.

What do you think?

Remember, if I can do it, you can, too!

Susan Levy
Publisher, Well-Fed Heart