Debunking – or, Read the Small Print
What I am going to call “debunking” is related to “critical media literacy,” though more basic and fact-oriented, less analytical. It is also particularly useful for working with kids on the issue of junk food – an issue which was highlighted in earlier posts that looked into the connections of fast food to obesity
By “debunking,” I mean reading and making sense of the small print, most often perhaps the small print of ingredient lists on food items, so it might be termed “label literacy” as well. Sometimes, it applies more literally to the small print – those quick disclaimers that appear in TV ads or the small print of advertisements in magazines or of packaging for non-food items.
Obviously, it is not enough just to read the small print. Our kids need to know how to make sense of what they read, what the terms mean. Even for adults, this can be quite difficult.
A few months back (I don’t know how I missed it for so long) I first noticed “evaporated cane juice” in the list of ingredients for some product. Uh – cane juice, sounds like something fruity, like fruit juice. That’s good. Wait a minute – “cane” as in sugar cane? Evaporated cane juice is… sugar?!?
Yes, sugar. And it turns out there are a lot of these stealth sugars out there, or at least a lot of names being used: dried cane juice, cane juice crystals, dehydrated cane juice, unrefined cane juice crystals, “Florida crystals,” etc. While everyone seems to agree that this cane stuff, by whatever name, is basically sugar, there is still a fair amount of controversy about whether it brings anything to the table – as it were – beyond traditional refined cane sugar. Here are some of the controversies/issues/arguments/points being made:
- “Cane juice,” in whatever form and by whatever name, generally retains some vitamins and minerals lost in the refining process; most nutritionists seem to dismiss this argument as pathetically weak, as the vitamins and minerals retained are so minuscule in quantity and don’t come near to outweighing the nutritional disadvantages of sugar.
- Avoiding the refining process is more ecologically sound, as it saves all the energy, water, etc., used in that processing.
- The refining process also strips out flavour; as with the demerara sugar sometimes offered with coffee or tea, the “cane juice” supposedly has a richer, slightly molasses flavour.
- Claims about its taste or vitamin content are disingenuous – it’s chemically and nutritionally sugar. On the other side, a bit of sugar is not the end of the world, and if we are going to have some sweet stuff, it’s better for being made with evaporated cane juice, which adds a bit of extra vitamins and taste and has some environmental benefits in the manufacturing process.
- Since animal products (in the form of carbon) are apparently used in some sugar-refining processes, “cane juice” is safe for strict vegans.
Debating the relative merits – or lack thereof – of these points would take us away from the topic here; I’ll include some links at the end of this post for those who want to pursue these and other issues raised. The biggest – and to my mind most important – controversy is over just how sneaky and dishonest the name really is – to what extant it is just an underhanded way of making “sugar” (bad in many people’s eyes) disappear from the ingredients list while keeping its crowd pleasing, empty calorie qualities in the product. And here, there seems to be reasonably broad agreement that there is something at least a bit sneaky about the way the names are being used; they do seem intended to permit the inclusion of sugar in products while still allowing them to appear healthy and “natural” – though the use of healthy and natural sounding terms like “juice,” “unrefined” and “Florida” (associated in the United States with sunshine and orange juice as a result of previous misleading food advertising – and also, more recently, with electoral fraud).
High fructose corn syrup (corn – a vegetable – healthy!) played a similar role for a long time, but its cover has been comprehensively blown in recent years (and the corn syrup industry has had to hire a bunch of fancy spin doctors to try to salvage their business – spin doctors including that stealth marketing/PR firm, Center for Consumer Freedom, discussed/debunked previously). Maltodextrin also serves a similar function in the ingredient list of many products.
Debunking the various stealth sugars – explaining what they really are – is one way to help your kids kombat kommercialism when it comes to junk food. My experience has been that many kids feel that it is sneaky and unfair that sugar is smuggled into their foods in this way, and are particularly irked when they discover items with multiple sweeteners by different in their ingredient lists – all too common in kids’s stuff, unfortunately. They see the use of these stealth sugars as unfair, as cheating.
When Natural isn’t Healthy
Trickery in the labeling of kids’ food is not limited to misdirection in the names for ingredients. A new Vitaminwater product is currently being marketed heavily here in San Francisco with ads describing it as “naturally sweetened.” We try to instill in our children the idea that natural and organic are good, that fruit juice and vitamins and water are good, etc. When something like Vitaminwater comes along, it sometimes feels like those efforts are being used against us. Sure, Vitaminwater is naturally sweetened. Even sugar is natural, naturally sweet, being derived, as we’ve seen, from “evaporated cane juice” – though the sweetener in at least many of the Vitaminwater products is not sugar, but that other natural product – sounds like fruit! comes from corn! – crystalline fructose. Crystalline fructose is a lot like evaporated cane juice – it is derived from high-fructose corn syrup, but the trivial change in form allows them to use a different name, disguising its origins and avoiding high-fructose corn syrup’s bad reputation.
The deception, disingenuousness and marketing trickery doesn’t stop there. Vitaminwater is ostensibly made by Glacéau, but in fact by Coca-Cola, which acquired Glacéau in 1997 [here]. However, you wouldn’t know it by looking at their very slick website, which uses the Glacéau name throughout, and even in the section devoted to “corporate stuff” does not ever seem to acknowledge its true ownership. Similarly, it does not seem to be possible to get an ingredient list from the website, not even the ingredients list required by law to be included on every bottle.
And the site is designed to make it very difficult to cut and paste information from it, which whatever the ostensible design justification also complicates debunking / critical media literacy efforts – a smart move given how disingenuous the site is.
Other efforts to depict vitaminwater in a positive and healthy site, while blocking efforts to look into such claims are rife on their website. To mention only one example, the “corporate stuff'” section features a press release proclaiming that an “independent clinical study proves vitaminwater works.” No information on who performed this study is given, though we are told that the results were presented at the 2006 conference of the American College of Nutrition. Although ostensibly an independent non-profit, the American College of Nutrition receives the bulk of its funding from its corporate friends, including Coca-Cola and a raft of other corporations manufacturing packaged foods.
Vitaminwater also tries to pass itself off as healthy with its “fruit juice” appearance, and all the attention given to vitamins, and by playing on the fact that we are encouraged to drink water. In fact, products in the main Vitaminwater line have almost as much sugar content as their (secret) sister product, Coke. It’s actually a marvel of marketing – never false, since after all crystalline fructose is indeed natural and it does contain vitamins, but never honest. Dishonest enough, in fact, that earlier this year a class-action lawsuit was filed against Coke by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for Vitaminwater’s “deceptive and unsubstantiated claims” [here].
Similar – though rarely as breathtaking or successful – marketing efforts exploit the “healthy” connotations of terms like “organic” or “fruit / fruit juice.” Many drinks that proudly boast of being “fruit drinks” or play off fruit juice-like qualities and appearance (like the colouring and naming of Vitaminwater products) actually contain little or no fruit juice. Products that legitimately claim to contain fruit juice frequently have only tiny amounts, sometimes as low as 3% or less. Explaining this to kids, and showing them where to look on the labels to find out how much fruit juice these drinks really contain, is an important tool in empowering them to make healthy choices in what they eat and drink.
When I first did this debunking/small print process with my son Misha, he went through a period of gleefully exposing the actual contents of various drinks. He was particularly excited by an ad for a drink that proclaimed “Now with 5% real fruit juice.” Even at the age of ten, he could see that 5% wasn’t anything to boast about, but that the form of that statement – “Now with More” – made it seem impressive, like a real achievement, as it was meant to – and that this was just another example of how these companies tried to trick him.
The term “organic” seems to be used to mislead most often in the names given to personal care and beauty products, perhaps because labeling guidelines make it more difficult to use deceptively when describing foods. Along with “organic,” terms like “natural” and “herbal” regularly appear in the names of products like shampoos and lotions that have very little natural about them.
One example, plucked more or less at random from the Walgreen’s website product listings, is the “Intimate Organics” line of sexual lubricants, like their “G-Spot Stimulating Gel.” These products do indeed contain “a blend of certified organic extracts,” as do most of the other personal care and beauty products that tout their “organic” qualities in one way or another, but as with the vitamins and minerals of “evaporated cane juice” we are actually talking about pretty small amounts, and the biggest impact of these “organic extracts” is on the companies’ bottom lines. As discussed in earlier posts on “green consumerism,” organic, natural and green sell. Being attentive to the ways these terms are used in marketing is probably a bit more like “critical media literacy” proper rather than just simple debunking, but there are lessons here even for kids in being careful about misleading labels. If the front of the bottle has the word “organic” in big letters, but the small print of the ingredients shows a long list of chemicals with a few organic extracts included in the middle, then you are right to suspect that you are being marketed to with intent to mislead.
Returning to sugar, when I was a kid, the main sugar company hawked its wares with the slogan, “C&H – Pure cane sugar from Hawaii.” The connotations of “pure” and “Hawaii” did a lot of the heavy lifting in convincing us of the essential goodness of the product. Getting kids to read between the lines – to recognize that just because something is described as “pure” or “from Hawaii,” “natural,” “organic” or “herbal” doesn’t mean it is good for us, or even that it is “natural” in any everyday sense – will help them to make healthier choices, and to resist the tremendous forces of marketing that are aimed at them.
A Good Guide
But it takes work to make sense of the labels and ingredients, and it’s even more time consuming if you also want to be attentive to other factors, such as the policies of the company making the product, like its “green” commitments. Fortunately, help is available. Though still in the early stages of development – still “beta” – GoodGuide has already racked up a number of awards, including being named “Startup Most Likely to Make the World a Better Place” and being featured in Time magazine’s article on “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The GoodGuide website provides information on over 70,000 products – not only on the ingredients, but also on the labor practices and corporate responsibility policies of the companies behind the products. Here’s how they describe themselves:
GoodGuide™ strives to provide the world’s largest and most reliable source of information on the health, environmental, and social impacts of products and companies. GoodGuide’s mission is to help you find safe, healthy, and green products that are better for you and the planet. From our origins as a UC Berkeley research project, GoodGuide has developed into a totally independent “For-Benefit” company. We are committed to providing the information you need to make better decisions, and to ultimately shifting the balance of information and power in the marketplace.
GoodGuide‘s attention to factors beyond ingredients and health, to issues like labour and environmental practices and policies, sets them apart as a genuinely progressive endeavour, and makes them a much more powerful force for real social change. More and more consumers and parents are concerned not just with whether something is good for their kids, but also with whether it is good for the planet (“green consumerism”) and whether, for example, somebody else’s kids had to work in a sweatshop to produce it. GoodGuide provides a one-stop source for this kind of information, and their recent release of a free, downloadable application for the iPhone (and iPod Touch) makes it possible to access that information while you shop – an incredible advantage.
Some links for further reading on alternative sweeteners and on Vitaminwater:
- The Food Portal on Wikipedia
- The Sugar Association; their discussion of alternative sweeteners
- “Evaporated Cane Juice” – post on the blog Tragedy of the Commons (“Let’s talk about real stuff…resources, the environment, books, the future, humor, et cetera…”)
- and again on the blog Overcoming Bias – economist Robin Hanson’s blog, on honesty, signaling, disagreement, forecasting, and the far future – and also on “weber_cam” and (last one) in “On the Sweet-Tooth of a Dilemma” – an article from 1997 (how did I miss this for so long?!?) on Organica News
- “Learn about High Fructose Corn Syrup” on GoodGuide
- “Is Vitaminwater Good for You” on Scienceline (a project of NYU’s Science, Health and Environment Reporting Program)
- “How Vitaminwater Works” – on HowStuffWorks