Storm in a bowl of cornflakes?

In January 2006, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of South Africa ruled against Kellogg's SA over claims made in their advertising and packaging of cereals.

The ruling made headline news. It specified that Kellogg's may no longer advertise its cereals as 'healthy' and must withdraw all materials that make such a claim forthwith.

The complaint against Kellogg's SA was lodged by Bokomo, one of their competitors, who also make various breakfast cereals. Bokomo alleged that the various health claims made by Kellogg's SA about their breakfast cereals, including Coco Pops, Coco Pops Jumbos, Strawberry Pops, Frosties, Froot Loops and Rice Crispies, were in contravention of the existing SA Labelling Regulations.

The Kellogg's TV commercial which claimed that 'Kellogg's kids' cereals are a healthy part of a balanced breakfast' and the packaging declaration that these cereals are for 'healthy mind and body development' came under fire by Bokomo.

The justification
According to the SA Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act No 54 of 1972), and R2034 published in the Government Gazette, on 29 October 1993, 'Regulations Governing the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs', the use of the term 'healthy' is expressly forbidden on labelling and accompanying advertising materials used for foods.

Under the heading of 'Prohibited Statements', Clause 10, states: "The following information or declarations shall not be reflected on a label or in an advertisement of a foodstuff:" and subheading (b) continues: "the words 'health' or 'healthy' or other words or symbols implying that the foodstuff has health-giving properties as part of the name or description of the foodstuff".

This regulation has been in place for many years and food manufacturers have been aware of the prohibition on the use of the term 'healthy' for a long time. It is, therefore, rather surprising that Kellogg's SA should make use of this forbidden descriptor in their marketing.

Why not?
The public are probably wondering why on earth the SA Labelling Regulations won't permit the use of the word 'healthy' in relation to certain foods.

One could argue that some foods definitely contribute to good health and that consumers should be made aware of their excellent properties. Fruit and legumes spring to mind with their high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytochemicals.

However, we need to remember what the SA Labelling Regulations set out to achieve.

Among other goals, these regulations have been formulated to protect the public against misleading information. If one food would be allowed to claim that it is 'healthy' (even if this claim is perfectly justified), it would open the door to all other food manufacturers to make similar claims.

And as we all know, there are many foods out there that are not healthy and, therefore, do not deserve the claim of being 'healthy'.

The Kellogg's case
In this last case, in which Kellogg's lost when the ASA ruled against them, they were advertising their breakfast cereals as 'healthy'.

In view of the recent international storm surrounding the nutritive value of breakfast cereals in general, and kids' cereals in particular, this was probably a risky approach. Only last year the media carried repeated headline articles decrying the use of low-fibre, sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals, particularly in the diets of children.

The pros and cons
Is it justifiable to encourage parents to give their children breakfast cereals which have a low-fibre content and have been sweetened with sugar? As a pragmatist, I believe that it is better for a child to eat some breakfast rather than none.

The ideal situation would be that children should eat a cooked porridge like oats or unsifted maize meal or Maltabella for breakfast. But if we take the pace of modern life into account, where most adults skip breakfast and just grab a cup of coffee on their way out to battle the morning traffic, I must admit that working mothers and harassed parents can be forgiven for opening a ready-to-eat packet of breakfast cereal for their children.

Nowadays, most instant breakfast cereals are fortified with a variety of nutrients such as iron and B-vitamins, which in some countries like the USA have been found to supply a considerable percentage of the daily required intake of such nutrients to the population. So, this is a nutritional advantage.

And if the cereals are served with milk (rich in calcium) and a glass of orange juice (rich in vitamin C, which also improves the uptake of iron from the cereal), a modern breakfast can make a considerable contribution to our nutritive status.

But what about the low-fibre content and the added sugar? Ideally, cooked, unsifted porridges should be used to supply some dietary fibre to the daily intake. A solution would be to mix a high-fibre cereal with the low-fibre cereal and thus ensure a greater fibre intake for young and old alike.

The added sugar and lurid colours of some cereals, make alarm bells ring, but if you can persuade your children not to add additional sugar to their breakfast cereal and wean them off the highly coloured ones, you can avoid these potentially negative effects.

Children would add sugar or honey to cooked cereals to improve the palatability in any case, so provided they don't add even more sugar to ready-to-eat cereals, their sugar intake shouldn't be excessive.

Even the strictest dietary recommendations permit the use of moderate quantities of sugar to enhance the palatability of the diet. Just remember to let the children and adults brush their teeth after breakfast to prevent tooth decay.

The future of SA Labelling Regulations
All of us in the food world have been waiting for many years for the SA Department of Health to publish what has come to be known as the 'new' SA Food Labelling Regulations.

These 'new' regulations are reputed to be much stricter and will define a variety of 'prohibited statements' in an attempt to protect and inform the SA public. The effect of stricter food labelling regulations will send shock waves through the food manufacturing industry.

However, until these 'new' regulations are published and become law, the field is pretty much wide open. Food manufacturers still have a great deal of leeway when it comes to what they may or may not say on their labels and in their adverts.

But the term 'healthy' had been prohibited for so long, that it is surprising that Kellogg's did not realise that they were entering forbidden territory with their labels and ads.

The ASA has ruled that the word 'healthy' has to be withdrawn immediately, and its use in labels and claims made by Kellogg's SA has been prohibited. Hopefully other food manufacturers will take note. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

(References: Can Health Claims, Kellogg's Told. 18 January 2006; SA Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act No 54 of 1972); R2034 'Regulations Governing the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs', Government Gazette No 15226, 29 October 1993, p12-38)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc.

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