Kellogg's reprimanded for calling Special K 'nutritious' as dietary guidelines change

Kellogg's has been reprimanded for advertising Special K cereal products as 'nutritious' by British regulators. It's an indication of how ideas about nutrition are shifting, in the United States and abroad.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A bowl of raisin bran is seen at the Kellogg's new NYC cafe in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Kellogg was recently reprimanded by Britain's Advertising Standards Agency for misleading advertising in Special K ads.

Special K has been asked to be more specific when claiming its food products as “nutritious” and “full of goodness,” in an example of government agencies responding to shifting ideas about diets and nutrition. 

Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency has reprimanded the Kellogg Company for advertising its Special K flakes as “nutritious” and Special K porridge as “full of goodness” without substantiating those claims. In October 2015, the food company aired a television ad describing Special K porridge as “full of deliciousness” and “full of goodness.” During that same time, the Special K website promoted Special K flakes as made with the Nutri K recipe, making them a “nutritious and delicious start to your day.”

Kellogg's responded that declaring food “nutritious” did not equal a claim that the product had a health benefit. Kellogg's also argued that “full of goodness” was a general claim that did not need specific material for support. However, the ASA’s initial ruling was upheld, and the agency suggested that Kellogg alter the Special K porridge ad.

The ASA’s issue with Kellogg’s marketing in Britain echoes the United States' Food and Drug Administration’s complaint against Kind bars last year. In March 2015, the FDA wrote a letter to Kind warning that four of its fruit and nut bars labeled "healthy" did not meet the requirements to use such a claim.  The Kind label reads, "Healthy and tasty, convenient and wholesome."

The FDA ruling required Kind to remove “healthy” from those labels.  In the US, the term comes with strict guidelines about the nutritional standards for food products, which Kind did not meet because of the bars' high fat content.

However, the practical definition of “healthy,” defined by the FDA in 1994, is changing. And just over two months ago, the FDA re-evaluated the term “healthy” and decided that Kind bars could wear the label. The reason: the bars’ higher fat content comes from nuts, which contain fats that nutritionists generally think are more nutritious than fats from many other sources. 

"Low in fat used to mean healthy. And high in fat had a pejorative context to it,” Thomas Sherman, an associate professor at Georgetown University who teaches nutrition, told National Public Radio in May.

The administration plans to continue redefining healthy moving forward to reflect more current attitudes about nutrition. The FDA told the Washington Post, “we believe now is an opportune time to re-evaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term ‘healthy.’”

Both the United States and Britain have revised nutrition guidelines within the past year. In May, the FDA came out with new Nutrition Facts label guidelines, which updated recommendations concerning fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. The agency recommended limiting refined grains, like those found in many breakfast cereals. 

Most notably, the guidelines took a strong stance against added sugar and sugary beverages. Companies will need to comply with the new guidelines come July 2018 or July 2019 if the company makes less than $10 million annually.

Across the pond in March, Britain adopted new national dietary guidelines, including a new Eatwell guide which communicates to consumers which food groups should be eaten the most.

Other nations are going even further. Echoing a proposal that had broad support but was ultimately left out of the final guidelines in the United States, China released new guidelines in June recommending that citizens eat less meat, with the goal of reducing the country's meat consumption by 50 percent by the year 2030. Environmentalists applauded the change as an effective plan to reduce greenhouse gas emission.  

"On top of any health benefits from the meat cutback, there would be major climate benefits..." Fusion wrote last month. "If the new guidelines were followed, the livestock industry could reduce emissions by up to 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 2030, down from a projected 1.8 billion metric tons that year. This would equal a 1.5% drop in global emissions—more than France and Belgium’s entire yearly output combined."

The advisory committee that helped draft the new dietary guidelines in the US had suggested including sustainability as a factor in the recommendations. The FDA ultimately rejected the proposal, but it's yet another an indication of how thinking about food has changed to include its broader global impact.

Companies will need to keep up with changing food regulations in both Britain and the United States, especially as words like “healthy,” “goodness,” and “nutritious” are defined and redefined -- for both individuals and the world at large.

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