Will a new standard put an end to dodgy claims on food labels?
Kiwi consumers have been waiting close to 10 years for a comprehensive standard that’ll stop misleading nutrition and health claims about food. We think the latest version of the standard will help give the red card to dodgy “health” claims, but we're not convinced it will stop the “nutrition” claims that manufacturers use to market unhealthy products.
We've been campaigning for a comprehensive standard for a long time. We were involved in the earlier stages of developing this standard; and we’ve recently sent another submission to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) putting forward our views.
Under the current rules, there’s only one health claim allowed on food labels (for folic acid, which helps prevent neural tube defects in developing foetuses). But that’s hard to believe when you look at some food labels.
The lack of rules makes it too easy for manufacturers to market foods using claims about health benefits that aren't backed up by good evidence. Their main trick is to promote a single nutritional aspect of a food that’s otherwise of limited nutritional benefit – for example, a "fat free" salad dressing that's high in sugar and sodium.
The proposed standard covers nutrition, health and related claims.
- Nutrition claims are statements like "low fat" or "high fibre" that suggest or imply a food has particular nutritional benefits.
- Health claims refer to a relationship between a food and health, such as "rich in calcium for strong bones".
- Related claims include nutrition- or health-related endorsements (like the Heart Foundation tick).
What will happen
If the new rules are adopted, the only health claims you’ll see are those pre-approved by FSANZ – and a food will have to meet specific nutrition criteria before a claim is approved. For example, a low-sodium food will be allowed to refer to the beneficial relationship between a low-sodium diet and reduction in blood pressure … but it must contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100 grams of food and meet specific nutrition criteria.
The rules for using nutrition claims have been revised too. But not as much as we’d like: foods that carry these claims won't have to meet specific nutrition criteria. That’s disappointing because we’ve found nutrition claims often turn up on foods high in fat, sugar and salt. For example, Kellogg's Nutri-Grain – a cereal that's high in added sugar and salt, and low in fibre – carries several claims including that it's "high in protein", a "source of calcium", a "good source of B1, B2 & niacin" and a "good source of iron".
If foods had to meet specific nutrition criteria before they could carry a claim, food manufacturers would be encouraged to reformulate their products and make them healthier. Nutrition claims would no longer be on unhealthy products.
FSANZ is also exploring regulation of "fat-free" and "% fat-free" (as in "97% fat-free") claims. We'd like so-called "fat-free" foods to be required to meet other nutrition criteria – for example, in their sodium and sugar levels.
Recent University of Auckland research into how consumers interpret the nutrition claim "97% fat-free" found that shoppers can misinterpret this claim as meaning the food is healthy overall. This claim appeared to be particularly misleading for Maori, Pacific, Asian and low-income groups.
To avoid confusion, nutrition claims should be restricted to healthy foods. Consumers should be able to take label claims at face value – without having to double-check them against the nutrition information panel.
We're pleased health claims will be allowed only on foods that meet specific nutrition criteria. We'd like to see nutrition claims (including fat-free claims) subject to the same level of scrutiny. This would put an end to misleading claims and give consumers confidence that they can rely on food labels.
More from consumer.org.nz
- Food Bill - details of the proposed update to the Food Act
- Traffic light labelling - we picked a sample of supermarket products that make nutrition claims and applied traffic light labelling
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