A congressman wants government researchers to take a look at rules limiting the sugar content of food aid for poor mothers and their children. Consumer advocates are incensed at what they see is a boondoggle for Kellogg's Raisin Bran.
Outgoing Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., added an amendment to the agriculture spending bill moving through Congress that finances a $300,000 study by the National Academy of Sciences on the sugar limitations in the agency's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
Primarily, the study is to determine whether the natural sugar of raisins should count towards a WIC limit of 6 grams of sugar per ounce of dried cereal. It's a ban that has been opposed for years by Kellogg Co., which claims it unfairly eliminates its popular raisin cereal.
Mothers in the $2.8 billion WIC program are given vouchers to buy cereals and other foods. The sugar limit is meant to promote good nutrition for low-income recipients, who often lack good preventative health care.
The Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service has reviewed the sugar limit several times and each time concluded the limit should stand, spokesman Phil Shanholtzer said.
Lynn Parker, child nutrition programs director for the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, said in light of such reviews, "It seems really a form of overkill and waste of resources to spend $300,000 to look at this issue one more time, when nothing has really changed."
Kellogg lobbied for the new study in hopes of getting scientific evidence to bolster its claims.
A decision based on science will "help solve this problem once and for all," said Joseph Stewart, senior vice president of the Battle Creek, Mich.-based company.
"We believe it is ridiculous to count naturally occurring sugar in raisins," Stewart said. "The same WIC program encourages the consumption of fruit juices. Fruit juices have naturally occurring sugar in them. Nobody considers that bad nutrition."
Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest countered, "Should taxpayer dollars be going towards helping Kellogg sell more Raisin Bran? It's over the limit because they sugarcoat their raisins."
Kellogg's cereals such as Product 19 and Corn Flakes are among dozens in the WIC program, as well as Kellogg's Raisin Squares. The Food Research and Action Center said that proves the breakfast food maker adds sugar to the Raisin Bran fruit, but Stewart said Raisin Squares is made with a raisin mix, not whole raisins.
The USDA keeps no listing of qualifying cereals, leaving that to individual states to determine, Shanholtzer said.
Stewart said raisins in Raisin Bran have about 8.5 grams of sugar, including up to a gram of glycerin coating. Combined with 5 grams of sugar in an ounce of bran flakes, the cereal well exceeds the program's limit.
"We know scientifically, there's no way you, on the basis of science, can eliminate the naturally occurring sugar in raisins," Stewart said. "Unless the Department of Agriculture is prepared to tell everybody raisins are not good for you, (and) we all know that's baloney."
He said the sugar limit is "not very responsive to the WIC recipients who have the right to have the same kind of products that everybody else likes to have."
Consumer groups counter that Kellogg's moves are an attempt to open the door for more than just sugary raisins.
"It's really an issue of where do you draw the line on the sugar content of the cereals in the WIC food package," said the Food Research and Action Center's Parker.
"I think the real issue has to do with whether you open the food package up to highly sugared cereals," Parker said. Once Kellogg's Raisin Bran is allowed, can Sugar Corn Pops be far beyond?
Stewart denied that's the intent. "We're saying keep your 6-gram limit," he said, "but don't count the natural sugar in fruit."
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