WhoNu Cookies Were Healthy? Big Food, Of Course

By JOANNA DETZ

Can a cookie be delicious and nutritious? It certainly can be marketed as such.

Case in point: Denver-based Suncor Products, the parent company and maker of WhoNu? cookies, has been promoting its oreo-esque sandwich cookies as “nutritious” with a TV ad blitz this winter.

The commercials are transparent in their messaging. Even with the volume off, it's clear from the images flashing on screen that these cookies were being equated with: A bowl of oatmeal! A cup of blueberries! A glass of milk! The takeaway: Why not eat a cookie in order get the same nutritional benefits as all these other healthy foods without eating all these healthy foods. Happy mom; smiling kids. The end.

A bit of research reveals that the basic ingredients of a WhoNu? chocolate cookie are nearly identical to those of an Oreo. Both WhoNu? chocolate cookies and Oreos contain sugar (first ingredient), corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial flavors. The difference? WhoNu? cookies have a few vitamins and fiber thrown into the mix, plus a heap of clever branding that is sure to appeal to parents who would rather just give their kids a cookie instead of fighting to get them to eat an apple.

And so Big Food continues to infantilize Americans, presuming that children and grown-ups alike can only swallow fiber and nutrition in cookie form. Products such as WhoNu? are Trojan horses for the processed-food industry, gaining the consumer’s trust (and dollars) with nutritional claims and then unleashing the sugar and corn syrup.

Of course, false advertising is nothing new, but in the light of the current obesity crisis facing America, it seems there should be limits on this kind of marketing. However, Suncor Products recently was cleared from charges of false claims by the National Advertising Division (NAD), the advertising industry’s self-regulatory body.

In a Jan. 26 press release, NAD stated that, “the advertiser refrained from expressly comparing WhoNu? cookies to whole fruits and vegetables, did not depict actual foods on its labels but rather cartoonish sketches.”

Ah, the old "cartoonish sketch" loophole. Joe the Camel wasn’t so lucky.

WhoNu?

We should all know better. We should all know that eating whole foods are best, and that we should aim to get our vitamins and fiber from foods with one ingredient. Example: Carrot.

But companies continue to spin out processed foods and market them as good for you. And consumers continue to gobble them up. General Mills recently unleashed its "Big G" campaign, marketing a lineup of its cereals as “whole grain.” Surprisingly, this roster includes Frankenberry (third ingredient sugar), Lucky Charms (second ingredient corn syrup) and Trix (second ingredient sugar). Have a little fiber with your Type 2 diabetes, kids. Oh, and how about an a little butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) to start the day, because that’s in there too.

That old adage, "Let food be thy medicine" is being exploited by Big Food and its slick advertising buddies. In the middle aisles of grocery stores, packaged foods of dubious pedigree pronounce their healthfulness on their wrappers and boxes. Antioxidant rich! Heart Healthy! Great Source of Fiber!

The only sanctuary from all this chatter is, ironically, where the healthiest foods reside, the produce aisle. Quiet cauliflower and humble sweet potatoes don’t have the biggest agencies working to promote their health benefits. There is no TV ad campaign for blueberries. They only get a bit part in WhoNu? commercials.

Joanna Detz is the executive director of ecoRI News.