Kraft Singles, those individually wrapped slices of processed cheese that have long been a staple of school lunches, are the first product to earn a nutrition seal from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group representing 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals.
Receiving permission to use the academy’s new “Kids Eat Right” label, derived from the logo for the Kids Eat Right nutrition education program run by the academy’s foundation arm, is a major coup for the Kraft Foods Group, the company behind Claussen pickles, Capri Sun juices and Breakstone’s dairy products. The company has approval for the label to appear on the packaging for the regular and 2 percent milk versions of Kraft Singles, which account for roughly 95 percent of the Singles brand.
Consumers are increasingly taking a minimalist approach to food, seeking out products with only a handful of ingredients that are easy for a layman to identify. Parents, in particular, are looking for products with lower levels of salt, sugar and fat and trying to coax their children to eat whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
Such trends have hurt big food companies financially. Many have reported sharply lower profits and sales, and several of their chief executives have openly bemoaned the state of the business. Last month, for instance, Denise M. Morrison, the chief executive of Campbell Soup, told investment analysts that there was “mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied for so long.”
The label is the first piece of what is to be a three-year collaboration between the academy and Kraft. Kari Ryan, director of nutrition, science and regulatory affairs at Kraft, noted that 80 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 4 to 18 do not receive enough calcium, while almost half of all children’s diets lack adequate vitamin D.
“We saw the synergies in taking our mission and the mission of the academy and making them into one to drive education and awareness around the nutrient needs of children and how to address them,” said Ryan, who is a registered dietitian and a member of the academy.
Kraft is a favorite target of advocates for better children’s nutrition, who say that many of its products are overprocessed, with too much fat, sodium, sugar, artificial dye and preservatives.
In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the company to change the language on packages of Singles and Velveeta because, in addition to milk and other dairy products, Singles and Velveeta contained “milk protein concentrate.” That ingredient is not allowed under the FDA’s definition of a “pasteurized process cheese food,” which is what Kraft had called those products.
“Pandora’s Lunchbox,” a book about how the food industry makes its products, written by Melanie Warner, a former New York Times reporter, recounts how James Lewis Kraft, the company’s founder, discovered how to keep cheddar cheese from going bad by breaking it down; sterilizing it to kill the bacteria that causes cheese to mold; and, reconstituting it into a square that could be cut into slices.
The new cheese was named “American.” Kraft continued to tweak the process, leading to the current incarnation of individually wrapped slices.
Singles packaging is now labeled “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”
“I am really shocked that this would be the first thing that the academy would choose to endorse,” said Casey Hinds, a mother of two children who is an outspoken advocate for improving the nutritional quality of foods children eat through her blog, USHealthyKids.org.
The academy emphatically denied that the label was an endorsement.
“The Kids Eat Right logo on Kraft Singles packaging identifies the brand as a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right,” Mary Beth Whalen, the academy’s executive director, said in an email statement. “It also serves to drive broader visibility to KidsEatRight.org, a trusted educational resource for consumers.”
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The debate over what the label is - Kraft told The New York Times it was the first time the academy had endorsed a product - highlights one of Hinds’ concerns. “It’s confusing, and just one more way that feels like, as parents, there are so many forces working against us as we’re trying to raise healthy kids,” she said.
She noted a study released this week by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut that found that many parents think fruit drinks, sports drinks and flavored waters, which have high amounts of sugar, are healthy choices for their children.
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But Carmen Maria Navarro, senior brand manager for Kraft Singles, said as a mother herself, she was confident in its quality. “Kraft Singles is a very good product with very good nutritional attributes,” she said. “It has a dairy component, and we know children don’t get enough dairy, as well as being an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D - and it’s kid-friendly.”
Over the last few years, the academy has been criticized by some of its members and by health advocates over what they say are its overly cozy ties to industry. Companies like PepsiCo, Kellogg and ConAgra regularly attend the organization’s big annual meeting, where they make presentations to dietitians, give seminars and parties and provide free samples of their products.
Andy Bellatti is one of the founders of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, an organization for disenchanted academy members.
“My jaw just hit the floor and my eyebrows just hit the ceiling,” he said of the academy’s decision to bestow the seal on Singles. “You would think an organization that has come under fire for so many years for its relations with food companies might pick something other than a highly processed cheese product for its first endorsement.”