center for science in the public interest


Suit Over ‘100% Natural’ Label On Nature Valley Granola Bars Settled

(AP Photo: Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo: Matt Rourke)

The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest has made me a hopeless cynic about the glowing verbiage on food packaging. Among the center’s other work, it acts as a sort of truth squad for food claims, outing many “good for you” labels and ads for the shameless distortions that they are.

“I guess I knew that was too good to be true,” is my usual reaction when I find out that yet another hyper-palatable “healthy” snack or entree is actually packed with sugar or fat or salt.

Now, the center reports the settlement of a suit it brought against General Mills for calling Nature Valley granola bars and other products “100% Natural” even though they contained highly processed sweeteners. (Wait, you mean “high-fructose corn syrup” doesn’t just count as corn?) From it’s press release:

WASHINGTON—A settlement agreement announced today prevents General Mills from claiming that its Nature Valley granola bars, crispy squares, and trail mix bars are “100% Natural” if those products contain high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, dextrose monohydrate, maltodextrin, soy protein isolate, or several other artificially produced ingredients. The agreement, which is effective immediately and applies to labeling and marketing for 30 Nature Valley products, settles a 2012 lawsuit brought on behalf of consumers by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and two law firms.

CSPI privately raised its concern with General Mills over its “100% Natural” claims as early as 2005. The company began phasing out its use of high-fructose corn syrup in some products, but at the time of CSPI’s lawsuit was still using high-maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin. While those ingredients are derived from corn, they are produced by treating corn starch with acids, enzymes, or both before being refined into a substance that does not occur in nature.

The center notes that a bill introduced in Congress in 2013 “would prohibit the use of the word ‘natural’ on a food that includes any synthesized ingredient, or any ingredient that has undergone chemical changes such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, maltodextrin, chemically modified food starch, or alkalized cocoa.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that some Nature Valley packaging had apparently already been changed. Continue reading

Movie Popcorn Calorie Counts: They Won’t Tell You So We Will

It’s bad enough that cinemas ban outside food and then offer an array of high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt snacks. Now they won’t even ‘fess up to their nutritional sins. I got steamed this weekend when I read in The New York Times that movie theaters may be exempt from upcoming rules requiring chains that offer food to post their calorie counts. The Times reports:

The federal government on Friday released proposed rules requiring chain restaurants and other businesses that serve food to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards. But after objections from theater chains, the rules give a pass to those box-office snacks — even though a large popcorn and soda can contain as many calories as a typical person needs in a day.
The Food and Drug Administration said it would accept consumer and industry feedback on the rules before finishing them, hopefully by the end of this year. They are expected to go into effect some time next year, said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the F.D.A.

I turned to that useful source of nutritional truth, the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It tested tubs of movie popcorn in 2009, and published the horrifying results here. To put them in perspective:

It’s hard to picture someone mindlessly ingesting three McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with 12 pats of butter while watching a movie. But according to new laboratory analyses commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, that food is nutritionally comparable to what you’d find in a medium popcorn and soda combo at Regal, the country’s biggest movie theater chain: 1,610 calories and three days’ worth—60 grams—of saturated fat. (Nutrition aside, that combo costs $12—for raw ingredients that must cost Regal pennies.)

Here’s the full report. Bottom line: Even a no-butter small tub can be 400-670 calories; mediums and larges easily top 1000, and every tablespoon of butter topping adds over 100 more. No wonder the cinemas don’t want to post that.

I asked Jeff Cronin, the spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, how people can weigh in on this issue, and the process is slightly involved but here’s the response: Continue reading

My ‘Health Porn’: Nutrition Action Newsletter On Phony Claims

Lots of big birthdays going around these days. Massachusetts General Hospital just turned 200, as did McLean Hospital, and MIT is celebrating 150. Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest turns 40 this month, which is not as noteworthy — and it’s not even local — but the birthday did highlight an eyebrow-raising fact: The group’s “Nutrition Action” is the world’s largest- circulation health newsletter, according to a memo by CSPI chief Michael Jacobson.

Darn. I thought I was being kind of cutting-edge when I subscribed. Turns out that edge is broad enough to fit 850,000 other subscribers. But it should be no surprise. You’ve heard glossy real-estate mags called “house porn” and gourmet mags called “food porn;” for me, Nutrition Action is a bit like health porn, in that there’s something deeply delicious about its debunking of phony food and health claims. When it comes, I throw down the rest of the mail pile and immediately start leafing through.

The March issue just came today and includes a look at cold remedies and the often-shaky evidence behind their claims. What other publication would say something this blunt? “Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, there is no evidence that Airborne works.”

(CSPI also famously called fettuccini alfredo “a heart attack on a plate.” They ruined a lot of Chinese food for me, too, but still, I’d rather know than not. They also offer plenty of what-to-do advice; most often, it steers me away from enticing packaged food and toward as-nature-made-them fruits and vegetables.)

The 40th-birthday issue includes a fascinating rundown of unexpected findings on nutrition over the last 40 years, from the obesity-cancer connection to the exoneration of coffee as a possible cause of pancreatic cancer.

And here’s an interesting Boston-based tidbit from the March issue: There may be a link between high doses of Vitamin C and prostate-related urinary problems such as needing to go too urgently or too frequently, according to data from the Boston Area Community Health Survey.

Bottom line (as Nutrition Actions might say): I trust Nutrition Action as a rare counter-weight to commercial interests. And happy birthday, all.