By Henry Ehrlich
The other night on Facebook, a food allergy Mom complained: “Play-Doh is marketed as hypoallergenic…ummm…NOT. Wheat is the main ingredient. Soy-Doh is also marketed as hypoallergenic because it doesn’t use wheat. Well, soy is in the top 8 also. Nice try! UGH!”
I dunno—maybe the food allergy epidemic hasn’t registered in Hasbro’s marketing department. Or maybe some allergens are just more equal than others.
Regardless, if a plaything can be marketed as hypoallergenic when it contains a top-8 food allergen, I wondered, what does the word mean, anyway? As it turns out, not much. I looked up entries on the FDA website. In a discussion of a hydrolyzed infant formula I saw this: “An ingredient that does not contain allergic protein would not be expected to provoke clinical reactivity in allergic individuals.”
Well, Play-Doh is not a food. Or is it? Hasbro’s home page features the Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Frosting Fun Bakery Set, so a child could conceivably misunderstand. Other products include Burger Builder and Spaghetti Builder. Even without the new versions, children have been eating it forever. Mmmmm. Salty. Just like other things they put in their mouths, especially the ones with allergic rhinitis.
Say you could keep them from eating Play-Doh, there is still the matter of skin contact. For that, the guidance on cosmetics might be more germane. So what does the FDA have to say?
“There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.
“The term ‘hypoallergenic’ may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.”
The FDA also says that whatever it means, it doesn’t mean non-allergenic. As a marketing term it’s supposed to imply less allergenic than competitive products that are not so designated, but obviously there’s no proof. However, that’s for cosmetics, not toys that end up in the young pie hole. If hypoallergenic implies less allergenic, we must ask, compared to what? Plasticine clay? What’s in that? The recipe I found showed these ingredients: sheet beeswax or microcrystalline wax, petroleum jelly, teaspoon baby or mineral oil, lime, and food coloring. Hmmm. Maybe something in there is allergenic, but I don’t know whether it would be as yummy as flour and salt, although it could still end up in the mouth if only by accident.
Still, the word hypoallergenic is a model of precision compared to the designations natural, healthy, and organic. The FDA website cites Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., Director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements says, “Consumers seem to think that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ imply ‘healthy,’…But these terms have different meanings from a regulatory point of view.”
“According to FDA policy, ‘natural’ means the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients. ‘Healthy,’ which is defined by regulation, means the product must meet certain criteria that limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and require specific minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other beneficial nutrients.
“Food labeled ‘organic’ must meet the standards set by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown or produced. But USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”
There’s no easy way out of the Orwellian dilemma posed by marketing semantics. Words mean what they say, unless they don’t. Is the glass half full because Hasbro has put a certain word on their labels, or is it half empty because the word itself is pretty much completely empty?
Hasbro’s corporate social responsibility page contains these words:
“Quality and safety are a Hasbro hallmark. ‘Total Quality’, our quality assurance and safety mantra, is built into our products, from design to engineering through manufacturing and incorporating feedback from consumers and retailers.”
Hasbro phone number–800-255-5516
I called Soy-Doh before they hit the main market and questioned them extensively. We are anaphylactic to wheat but after my conversation with them I wasn’t comfortable using their product because of the way they dealt with labeling and marketing. I’m only one customer but I thought it was misleading to especially market to a target group of customers but in actuality be misleading to that same group.
I also called Neutrogena a few years ago. We don’t use their products but it angered me that one of their sunscreens marketed specifically for babies with sensitive skin had as one of the first ingredients as peanut oil but using the scientific name which of course most consumers don’t know.
Susan Weissman says
As the mother of child with multiple anaphylactic food allergies and an adult with life-long skin issues (rosacea, sensitive, photo-reactive skin) I have long since learned that labels are meant to questioned, re-read and often ignored. My face and scalp have reacted allergically to oodles of hypoallergenic products. But those were dermatological reactions. Agreed – now that we have a generation of young children who may be in danger of ingesting small or even large amounts of a product not intended for ingesting it would behoove manufacturers to stop using the term hypo-allergenic on their “stuff.” Should the “Top 8” be listed on skin care cream as well? Well I’d like that. I would say the glass is half empty.