A few years ago,
There are studies, and then there are studies. This one, sponsored by Kellogg itself, compared children who ate its cereal with those who ate no breakfast at all. So it was misleading to the extent that it suggested that Frosted Mini-Wheats were better at improving attention than any other sort of breakfast. What's more, as the Federal Trade Commission noted, the study's findings were misused in the ads. In fact, half the children showed no improvement by eating the cereal, and attentiveness went up by 20% or more in only 1 in 9.
Parents, meanwhile, swallowed the message whole until the FTC demanded that the ads be changed. Kellogg complied.
Americans are searching food shelves these days for fountains of youth and antidotes to disease. In ways, this has been a healthy turn. People are more aware that nutritious food and exercise have real and important health benefits. But it also means, as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan has written, that we tend to think of foods as repositories of certain nutrients rather than as wholesome things to eat. Food companies cash in on that perception by advertising processed, packaged foods as containing antioxidants or
Food and supplement companies can advertise that their products are healthful as long as it's true and the ads don't mislead consumers, and as long as they don't claim their products prevent or treat certain illnesses. Only drugs cure disease, and claims about their efficacy are subjected to higher scrutiny than those about food.
There's a lot of hype. Clinical studies, some less valid than others, are as common these days as free radicals.
The federal government is aggressively challenging some of the claims made by food companies. In addition to the action against the Frosted Mini-Wheats ads, the FTC also has been embroiled in a years-long dispute with the maker of Pom Wonderful over ads that claimed the pomegranate juice and related products could prevent, treat or reduce the risk of
The Los Angeles-based company is appealing the FTC decision on several grounds. It says it gave consumers the relevant qualifying information, including describing studies as "initial" or "hopeful," and that its free-speech rights are being trampled because "potentially misleading" commercial speech cannot be prohibited.
The deciding issue in all such cases should be relatively simple: What would consumers think? In the case of the Frosted Mini-Wheats, they would believe that a child with attention problems would show a big improvement with a switch to that particular cereal. Pom's ads suggested it would require just one glass a day to "ace your EKG" and "amaze your cardiologist." Another ad offered the hopeful message: "Death is so dead.... Pom Wonderful has more antioxidants than any other drink and can help prevent premature aging, heart disease, stroke,