CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- It's a cold environment for food marketers trying to make health claims. Kellogg Co. today announced it would discontinue marketing Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies as products that could boost a child's immunity. In a statement, the company said it began adding antioxidants to the cereals last year.
"While science shows that these antioxidants help support the immune system, given the public attention on H1N1, the company decided to make this change," the statement read. "We will, however, continue to provide the increased amounts of vitamins A, B, C and E that the cereal offers."
Kellogg said it would continue to respond to consumer's desire for improved nutrition, "and we are committed to communicating the importance of nutrition to our consumers." But it's getting a lot harder. In this case, Kellogg was responding to parental concerns that advertising and packaging was preying on fears of the H1N1 virus. But the FDA has been coming down on food marketers with increasing frequency.
"If I was sitting in a food company, I would probably look at all of the messaging on all of my packages to make sure I'm not over-promising and under-delivering to make sure that the [health] claims are not more than they ought to be," said Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Last month, the FDA announced it would create its own front-of-pack labeling system, ending not only the Smart Choices initiative embraced by most prominent package-food companies, but all front-of-pack labeling systems.
The FDA will now be developing a standardized labeling system, but there's no guidance yet on when it will be ready. "Consumers trust when they see a health claim," said Keri Gans, a registered dietitian. "The truth is the majority of these claims have been substantiated through rigorous FDA control, but this Smart Choices program made the FDA take a closer look, and I think that's a positive thing."
Ms. Moores said there may be some consumer fallout as a result of some Smart Choices labels, which appeared on items such as mayonnaise and certain cereals in which sugar was the first ingredient listed.
"There were some obvious cases like with Frosted Flakes," said Don Ochwat, editor of Shopper Marketing Magazine. "That's going to raise an eyebrow."
General Mills' Cheerios was another well-publicized case this spring, as the FDA came down on the cereal, demanding that it cease claims that eating Cheerios as part of a low-fat diet can lower cholesterol 4% in six weeks. Now Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies has come under fire for claims that the sugary cereal can boost a child's immunity by providing a dose of antioxidants. The FDA has yet to step in on that matter.
Mr. Ochwat predicts that food marketers will all eventually go through third-party certification as a matter of course in making health claims. Most marketers already do that when making claims about the environmental sustainability. But the next headache would be in discerning which of those organizations were reputable.
To be fair, Mr. Ochwat said relatively few food and beverage marketers are concerned about making health claims, and a tiny percentage of those brands have been called on the carpet. When his trade magazine surveyed food and beverage marketers in January, about 52% of them said they had found ways of promoting the health benefits of their products during 2008, in response to consumer desire for healthier products. "I was a little surprised," he said. "They haven't jumped to it as quickly as we'd thought."