Thursday, September 10, 2015

Health Halos, Calorie Labeling, and Vending Machines

     Vending Times, a trade magazine for, you guessed it, the Vending Industry (machines, coffee service and micromarkets), recently announced that Mrs. Freshley’s has a new product, 7 Grain Cookies. You can read a little about them here, but the important information (i.e., nutrition content) is not yet posted. Other cookies by this company have, on average, 200 to 300 calories per package – the serving size.
     Without my explaining, can you guess the problem with a 7 grain cookie? Here is a hint and a term nutrition and obesity prevention researchers often use – “health halo.” You probably figured it out. By saying that this high sugar, high calorie item has 7 grains, people are distracted from the fact that it is still an item that should be consumed in extreme moderation. Cookies, pastries and such are in the discretionary category and I believe the latest version of US Dietary Guidelines suggest that discretionary calories take up no more than 10% of a day’s worth of calories (actually the new guidelines refer to added sugar not being more than 10% of calories). Therefore, if you were a small, active women consuming 1800 calories a day, this pack of cookies would be all you were allotted in discretionary calories for the day. The fact that the cookies might supply you with some whole grains, a positive thing, doesn’t change the fact that they are cookies. (BTW, other health halos you might see on discretionary food and beverage items, REAL sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses– it’s all sugar, and in this context, not different than corn syrup or table sugar).
     Label declarations such as these (e.g., 7 grains) can give us a false sense of the healthiness of an item. Of course, healthiness is a moving target, but let’s stick with sugar and calories – we do want to limit them across the board, throughout each day. In a similar fashion to label 'nutrient disclosures', researchers have found that some Front of Pack labels (of which I am a huge fan) can also create a health halo! Hamlin, McNeill and Moore(2014) conducted an experiment on choices people make after seeing different types of Front of Pack labels and found that across all types (2), having a label led people to buy that product more often than if it did not have a label, regardless of what the label said. This is only one study, and others show that the labels can be helpful in leading to a reduction in calories, salt or sugar purchased, but it is definitely something that should give us pause, especially because one of the label formats tested was my favorite, the multiple traffic light. 
      When I think of this in the context of our soon to be implemented calorie disclosure law for vending machines, it occurs to me that maybe, simpler IS better. In other words, if every single product has a label and the only thing on the label is calorie content – then choosing the smallest number would be the (usually) right thing to do. I have that parenthetical usually, because a 100 kcal pack of cookies might not be a better choice than the 200 kcal package of granola bars, BUT – it would still be the least caloric.
      Lastly, the 2016 calorie label law (passed in 2010) is very specific about the placement, color, font and size of the calorie disclosure. If you take a look at the pictures below, you can see why that is important.

I took these photos at vending machines where I work and offer some comments in the captions.

This is industry criteria, notice the calorie, sugar and sodium limits to be called a Choice Plus snack
Notice the sodium  - its too high to be a Choice Plus but the snack is in a Choice Plus Slot. Also this snack has a Front of Pack label which could be a health halo.

Great example of how different a Choice Plus snack can be and if you look closely you see some calorie disclosures on the package. You have 250, 190 and 100 here.  Importantly, they are ALL the same price ~ busting that myth.
In my opinion, this is not as helpful as the machines with the calories on the front inside the picture of the sodas. I was within inches of this display when I took the picture and you can barely read the calories on these sugar sweetened ice teas (120 per 20 oz)