MREs and Truth in Advertising

December 2nd, 2007 by MamaBear

When I was an adolescent, the country I was living in got caught up in a war situation, to put it mildly. Without revealing too much of myself I’ll say that my adolescence was not spent in the United States.

During the occupation the country I was living in experienced, which resulted in thousands of casualties, most of them innocent civilians caught in crossfires (as is the case with most, if not all, wars), the country’s economy shut down for a few months. Most grocery stores closed, and the tiny corner shops with food that had enough unlooted merchandise to sell would sometimes open, but only sporadically, and with very limited, mostly canned, products. Most supplies didn’t get to most places, so most places couldn’t open for business (not to mention most of the goods had long been ransacked from most stores during that time).

As a consequence of this, the United States military (which was there, and played an active role in the occupation) would issue to the general civilian population (of which my family and I were a part) MREs. What are MREs, you say? MREs are “Meals, Ready to Eat.” They are a food source, issued by the United States Armed Forces, that is ration-quality. At the time, my family, though thankfully not poor, was having considerable trouble finding places that sold food. So the free MRE packages, which consisted of food and other items hermetically sealed in brown plastic with no-nonsense black lettering describing the contents inside, came in pretty handy. We were grateful for them. Now I know in the military (and from talking to American military men and women who had to subsist on MREs), MREs are not popular. They are ration food, after all… Meant to be used in emergency situations, like wars (which should be rare, but sadly, are not).

My family and I ate the MREs; like I said, we were grateful to have them. They kept us from starving for a few days, weeks, however long it was that we ate them… But we also recognized that we could not subsist on them forever (they are not recommended for use beyond 21 consecutive days, probably because of the high sodium and other health reasons). Once the food supplies started coming back into our city, we were able to buy real food again, and we stopped eating the MREs. The ones that were left in our home became novelties (unopened and uneaten novelties, which we passed on to other people who needed them more than we did) after the real, fresh food started to come in.

I think of infant formula as MREs for babies. Both MREs and infant formula have most of the necessary nutrients, the baseline needed for survival, but they are not meant to be used exclusively when a better option is available (which in most normal situations, a better alternative usually is). The thing is, baby formula is a ration-quality product intended for special circumstances (mainly, the inability to breastfeed or pump). People were not meant to subsist on MREs for extended periods of time, not unless there is no other recourse (but if you had to subsist on MREs for a year or two, it probably wouldn’t kill you — you would likely survive). The same can easily be said for formula: babies were not meant (biologically) to subsist entirely on infant formula for extended periods of time.

Since it’s clear to me that infant formula is substandard infant nutrition (compared with the biological norm, breastmilk), and since it’s also pretty clear to me that way too many people in power (doctors, nurses, hospital administrators and personnel, etc.) seem to be confused about this, because they aren’t assisting new mothers with breastfeeding the way they should be upon the birth of their babies, and too many of them, furthermore, PUSH the use of infant formula inappropriately, I thought I’d start to make things a bit more truthful with a proper label.

Here it is:

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Compare it to a can of formula anyone could buy in any supermarket in the United States:

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The difference in visual information is huge.

Here are some caveats about my label: The label I created does not contain any nutritional information. I probably should have put that on there, but since I’m not actually selling formula, I don’t have to. :) I was going to give away some extra cans of formula to a shelter here, but I didn’t feel good about leaving the labels intact with all that formula marketing on them. I also didn’t feel good about ripping the labels off because then people wouldn’t know what was in the cans and might throw them away. I couldn’t bear to think of that waste, so instead, I created an alternative label that wouldn’t offend me as much. I simply designed it, printed it out, and pasted it on top of the existing label. That way, if anyone cares to look, they can still find the other one underneath, but they will first have to have read a differing point of view. I took a few artistic liberties with the part that says “Price,” where I said that it was free but available by prescription only. I got that idea from one of the commenters on this blog. The label I have on my download page for anyone to download is slightly different from the one pictured here because the final version has the volume information on it just under where it says “Cows’ Milk-Based.”

Anyway, I thought some of you might want to have this label as an option, so that you could, whenever Freecycling or donating excess cans of ready-to-feed formula to people who might need them, print some truthful labels out and paste them (or tape them, whatever) onto existing formula cans. But please be sure the information is accurate. Most routine formulas are 20 kCal/fl oz and cows’ milk based, so if you’re giving away soy formula or formula that is made with a different formulation, please do NOT use my downloadable label. Feel free to design your own alternative, truthful formula label, and please tell me about it so that I may link to your site and have others see your awesome ideas. Keep in mind that whatever label you create needs to mention that the biological norm is breastfeeding, and that formula is an MRE for babies, not an ideal food for long-term, exclusive use.

Also, I want to say that I welcome constructive criticism of any of the content on this label. If you feel that something on it isn’t accurate enough or may be portraying infant formula or artificial baby milks in too favorable of a light, I need to know that so that I can alter it, or at the very least draw attention to that so that others will be aware of this. Thanks.

Here’s the label itself, which you can download off the download page here at breastfeedingsymbol.org:

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8 Responses to “MREs and Truth in Advertising”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    I think the label is great! A little truth in advertising - REAL truth in advertising - would go a long way towards an educated public. Not just for formula either - I just love how a box of Lucky Charms cereal is labeled “Made with whole grains”, when it only contains 1g of fiber. Clearly, the folks at General Mills missed the point of the recommendations to eat more whole grains in the same way that the folks at Nestle missed the point of the WHO Code of Marketing Infant Formula. Which is to say, they didn’t miss the point at all, but rather found a way to confuse the consumer and capitalize on mis-information. Sigh.

  2. MamaBear Says:

    Jennifer,

    About the label: thanks. :)

    I hear you about the General Mills “whole grain” marketing, and marketing in general. The point of marketing is to sell more products, and this could either be a good thing (if the marketing is honest and seeks just to inform the consumer about the product(s) in question) or it could be a bad thing (if the marketing seeks to actively deceive the consumer about the danger or natural inferiority of a product). It’s a really fine line to draw, since whoever is selling will want to paint their product in as favorable a light as possible.

    I saw some conventionally grown (not organic, meaning, pesticides were used in its production) sugar for sale at Whole Foods the other day. It was labeled: “Vegan Cane Sugar.” Is there ever a time when cane sugar isn’t vegan? I’m sure the word “vegan” was deliberately, consciously added in the name because it would subtly play on consumers’ feelings of healthfulness and wholesomeness, and thus, move that conventionally grown, pesticide-laden sugar faster off the Whole Foods shelves than if they’d labeled it, truthfully, “conventionally grown sugar.” Ah, but that is unfortunately the way the world works. As consumers, we have to constantly be one step ahead, or we get sucked in by the undercurrent of deception.

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. :)

  3. jgilberg Says:

    Your point made me wonder about why a store would label sugar vegan or not, since Whole Foods tends to be one of the better businesses out there.

    Apparently, cane sugar is not always vegan/ vegetarian because animal bones are used in the processing. Something new to remember to look for when I am buying stuff in the store for Ryan.

    http://www.vegsource.com/jo/qa/qasugar.htm

  4. Rachel Says:

    I like your creative approach. My only concern is that if someone put these labels on and donated to a food bank or whatever, the food bank workers would say, “What is this?!?” and just toss it. You know, I remember there being an artist who would rework things like Barbie dolls and sneak them back onto store shelves… ;)

    And, wow, I’d love to hear your story some time.

  5. MamaBear Says:

    Jgilberg,

    Wow, thanks for the information! I did not know that (obviously :)). The main reason why I was upset about the sugar thing is ’cause I “fell for” the marketing. In other words, I went in with the intention of buying organic cane sugar, regardless of it being vegan or not (since I assumed — incorrectly — that all cane sugar was vegan). I saw the word “vegan” and let my guard down… And then came home and realized that nowhere on the packaging did it say it was organic. Which of course, makes me go, “Hm, ya think a person who is conscientious about getting cane sugar that’s vegan would want pesticides in their cane sugar? I think not.” Which is why Whole Foods disappointed me there. If they’re going to go through the trouble of processing it in a vegan way, why not start out with an organic product to begin with? Eh.

  6. MamaBear Says:

    Rachel,

    There really isn’t that much to tell. Or, rather, I guess there is, but not any more so than anyone else you’ll meet. If there’s anything I’ve learned. it’s that even the most “boring” person in the world has some really fascinating anecdotes to share, whether they know it or not. :)

    As for the food bank concern, yeah, that’s definitely a concern of mine, too. I’m hoping that if someone else has the time and inclination, they’ll devise a better infant formula label than the one I have so that that won’t happen. The thing is, though, if it says “infant formula” on it, I think people will figure out what it is. It’s actually really funny you should mention that because just today I noticed the Wal-Mart brand (”Parents’ Choice,” I believe it’s called) of ready-to-feed infant formula has a lot less B.S. on it than the more aggressively marketed brands. Take a look sometime, if you ever step foot in Wal-Mart.

    I would LOVE to know more about the reworked Barbie dolls…

  7. jgilberg Says:

    Whole foods seems to have their products in three different pricepoints/product lines. There is obviously all of the organic stuff. You also have your conventionally grown stuff, which tends to be cheaper and gets people in the door. Also, not everyone buys completely organic, so this keeps people in the store. It does make it a bit annoying since label reading is required.

    Then, they have the locally grown line. All of that stuff is from local producers and is not necessarily organic. It is for consumers who want to leave less of a carbon footprint. Also, a lot of those farmers are organic, but do not comply completely with the FDA’s standards or do not want to spend the cash to get the organic designation from the government. The locally grown line seems to be a response to Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    The Barbie thing was called the Barbie Liberation Organization. It was mostly done by a group called Rtmark. Unfortunately, I cannot find the newfeeds from the project, which were really funny.

    http://www.rtmark.com/history.html

  8. MamaBear Says:

    Jbilberg,

    I still have to read the Omnivore’s Dilemma. My mental list of books-to-read grows ever longer. :P

    Thanks for the link on the Barbie thing. I’ll definitely check that out. That sort of thing is usually a lot of fun to research. :)

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