FTC again condemns Kellogg’s inflated health claims

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Image from the Federal Trade Commission

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has, for the second time, lashed out against exaggerated marketing claims made by Rice Krispies’ manufacturer Kellogg’s. Last year the FTC ordered the company reached a settlement with the FTC, which criticized its unfounded claims that Frosted Mini Wheats cereal was “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%.” Yet shortly after coming to an agreement on that previous marketing campaign, Kellogg launched another effort for Rice Krispies, claiming that the cereal could boost children’s immunity, according to a statement released yesterday by the FTC.

Under the previous settlement, Kellogg was banned from making any claims about their products’ benefits to cognitive health or function unless such claims could be backed up by scientific evidence. In light of the subsequent claims — that Rice Krispies can boost children’s immunity — the original order has been expanded, and now more broadly bars the company from “making claims about any health benefit of any food unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and not misleading.”

Rice Krispies boxes with immunity claims first emerged on the market last May, but they came under intense scrutiny in the fall due as critics wondered whether the marketing efforts weren’t an attempt to capitalize on swine flu fears. In early November 2009 Yale obesity researcher Kelly Brownell dismissed the campaign to USA Today arguing:

“By their logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves, and it will boost immunity.”

In the same USA Today article Marion Nestle, prominent nutrition expert and professor of nutrition at New York University remarked:

“Yes, these nutrients are involved in immunity, but I can’t think of a nutrient that isn’t involved in the immune system.”

In the statement released this week regarding the revised order, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz rebuked Kellogg:

“We expect more from a great American company than making dubious claims — not once, but twice — that its cereals improve children’s health… Next time, Kellogg needs to stop and think twice about the claims it’s making before rolling out a new ad campaign, so parents can make the best choices for their children.”

Yet, as Katherine Hobson points out on the Wall Street Journal’s health blog, Kellogg is hardly the sole offender when it comes to making inflated — and unsubstantiated — claims about food products’ health benefits. Early last month Hobson pointed to a report from the Institutes of Medicine calling for more uniform scrutiny of health benefit claims — whether they apply to medical devices, pharmaceuticals or Cheerios.

Click to find out about deliberately deceptive food labels.