Two food and health partnerships really got under my skin this past month.
First, the American Academy of Family Physicians’ sponsorship deal with Coke for the AAFP’s consumer-
facing website, familydoctor.org, where Coke will underwrite content development on beverages and sweeteners. This deal is the first for AAFP’s new Consumer Alliance, a corporate partnership that—and I’m quoting from the AAFP’s press release here— “allows corporate partners like The Coca-Cola Company to work with the AAFP to educate consumers about the role their products can play in a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Is it me, or do these two seem like strange bedfellows? This is the same organization that published a study linking soda consumption to unhealthy weight gain and, possibly, to diabetes, right? Who in an article, titled “Assessment, Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity,” outlined these recommendations to their physicians counseling young patients and their parents:
· Drink less 100-percent fruit juice. While fruit juice contains many important nutrients, it is also high in calories. Drinking too much fruit juice may contribute to weight gain.
· Drinking too many sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda or juice drinks, can contribute to weight gain. For example, drinking one soda each day adds enough extra calories to result in a 10-pound weight gain each year.
· Water is the most important nutrient. Pack water instead of juice boxes for lunches, sports or travel.
Maybe this alliance wouldn’t be so galling if it didn’t follow right on the heels of the beverage industry’s sharp attack on a potential soda tax and the launch of the Smart Choices Program™. The program’s simple. Companies pay up to $100,000 to display the Smart Choices seal of approval. Their products are given a nifty green check mark to signify they’re healthy choices and are identified on the Smart Choices website. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low- and nonfat dairy are all included. So are full-fat mayonnaise, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Lunchables Chicken Dunks, and Fruit Roll-Ups Crazy Pix.
The problem is that the program’s too simple. It’s not a “smart,” “smarter,” “smartest” food labeling system. There’s no path—from Froot Loops to fruit and low-fat yogurt, for example—to help consumers make increasingly better choices. Buyers, like my kids or your employees, can now walk into the grocery store and—with a straight, validated face—tell themselves (or their parents) that they’re making a “smart” choice and go on their merry way.
Look, Lucky Charms aren’t the devil. Neither are soda and fruit juice. My family’s the oddity in our group of no-dessert or dessert-once-a-week friends. We have dessert twice a day, and I don’t mean fruit. We also tip back a can of soda now and again. I also recognize that my disgust is preemptive. Nobody knows how this new alliance will play out.
It may go the way of the Smart Choices Program. The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest—all original board members—have either dropped off or asked that their organizations be removed from the board, stating that individuals, not the institutions, are involved. Just last week, the Connecticut Attorney General announced he’s investigating Smart Choices, calling it “overly simplistic, inaccurate and ultimately misleading.”
But on the face of it, these deals and others like them make it increasingly difficult for consumers to make sound decisions and to know where to turn for reliable, unbiased information. They smack of trading a pound of flesh for our trust…and a ton of cash.
UPDATE: As of Friday 10/23, “Smart Choices,” a food industry labeling program that launched this summer and was backed by a bunch of food-business heavyweights will “voluntarily postpone active operations,” according to this statement.
Editors Note: Fran Melmed is the owner of context communication consulting llc, an employee communication consulting firm. She blogs at free-range communication on communication, HR, and health and wellness. You can find her on Twitter @femelmed. (image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/coca-cola_art_gallery)