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Front-of-Package Labels Hide Truth: 8-of-10 kids' foods flunk nutrition standards

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Chronic diseases like diabetes are skyrocketing, and children are predicted to have a shorter life span than their parents. Parents want healthy food for their kids, and they want accurate information to guide them.

But parents are being fundamentally misled, says Prevention Institute's new study, released today through Strategic Alliance. Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children's Food examined products with front-of-package labeling--those products that food companies choose to identify as healthier. Claiming Health found that 84% of products studied failed to meet basic nutritional standards. 
Contrary to the claims on the labels, study findings reveal:
  • More than half (57%) of the study products qualified as high sugar, and 95% of products contained added sugar.
  • More than half (53%) were low in fiber.
  • More than half (53%) of products did not contain any fruits or vegetables; of the fruits and vegetables found, half came from just 2 ingredients - tomatoes and corn.
  • 24% of prepared foods were high in saturated fats.
  • More than 1/3 (36%) of prepared foods & meals were high in sodium.

We didn't pick junk food, or candy, or the worst products out there--these are products that manufacturers' market to kids, and that the Better Business Bureau says are meant to encourage healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles. Of these fifty-eight products for kids, only one product contained a green vegetable. Parents buying a cereal promising high fiber, and low fat, are dishing up a product where sugar is the main ingredient. Reach for one of these kid-friendly packaged meals, and chances are one in three you'll be serving a high sodium meal (and that's if you stick to the recommended serving size).

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If these foods--some of the best manufacturers have to offer--can't meet basic nutritional standards, then what will?

Parents know what is healthy and they look for it when they shop: they're looking for whole grains, low sodium, low sugar foods for their kids. When they see on the front of the box that this product contains some healthy ingredients, they believe that makes it a healthy product. They don't know that these labels aren't regulated, that they vary widely between products and there are often some very unhealthy ingredients buried inside. You can't blame parents for believing what they see.

What's worse, these unregulated, deceptive practices have been going on for years. In 2007, our study Where's the Fruit found that over half of the most aggressively marketed children's foods advertising fruit on the packaging actually contained no fruit ingredients.

Claiming Health underscores that the current system is broken: we can't count on food companies to decide which products receive front-of-package labels and what information those labels include. Without FDA regulation, instead of giving more information to parents struggling to make the best decisions for their kids, families are being misled. They need food labels that reveal what's really inside, instead of emphasizing one healthy aspect to trick them into buying something fundamentally unhealthy. Mandatory front-of-package labeling guidelines will move us closer to food packages parents can trust.

The food industry can--and should--do better. Our families deserve it.