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Walk down any supermarket aisle and it won’t be long before you find a product touting a “natural” claim. Food marketers like to use the claim to spruik products as a better choice. However, the term “natural” isn’t backed by any standard and doesn’t mean the food is automatically a healthier option.
Labelling rules let manufacturers put “low sugar” claims on drinks, as long as there’s no more than 2.5g per 100ml. But the claims turn up on products that contain spoonfuls of sugar that you’re likely to down in one sitting. A case in point: Pump’s flavoured water boasts a “low sugar” claim but the 750ml bottle contains more than four teaspoons of the stuff.
Tip: You can work out the teaspoons of sugar in your food by dividing the grams of sugar on the label by four (there are 4 grams of sugar in a standard level teaspoon).
Claims about vitamin and mineral content – from vitamin C to iron – are often lurking on cereal boxes. They give the breakfast staple a health halo, but don’t mean the product’s a better choice. Along with vitamins and minerals, generous servings of sugar and fat may have been added to your breakfast.
Eggs or chooks from a “free range” flock? Be wary. There’s no standard definition of “free range” and unless the product carries independent certification there’s no guarantee anyone’s checked the birds are free to range. AsureQuality and BioGro organic certification set the highest standards for free range, limiting bird numbers to 1500 per flock and 833 per hectare respectively. The SPCA’s Blue Tick, the other main standard in the market, is less demanding and allows 5000 birds in a flock.
“Cage-free” shouldn’t be mistaken for free range. A cage-free claim on your egg carton means the hens are kept in a barn without cages but they’re not free to range outside. Cage-free means the same as “barn raised”, a claim that’s also used on egg cartons. Barns may sound rustic but they can be huge buildings, housing thousands of chooks.
Don’t let a “no artificial sweeteners” claim convince you a product is a low-sugar option. Other sweeteners – including lashings of sugar – could be hiding inside. To avoid a not so sweet surprise, check the ingredients list.
Tempted by a “low fat” claim on the pack? Don’t let it trick you. Manufacturers can use the claim if the food has no more than 3g of fat per 100g (1.5g for liquids). However, there’s nothing stopping them putting the claim on products that are also high in sugar or sodium.
Products hyping their “gluten-free” or “dairy-free” status are increasingly taking up shelf space. These products offer more choice to those who can’t eat wheat or dairy. But manufacturers aren’t shy of marketing them as “healthier” options for others. However, buying “free-from” foods doesn’t necessary come with any health benefit and they can be pricey. Take gluten-free: the refined flours used in some products lack nutrients found in whole grains. Not only can these foods contain less fibre, they can also be higher in sugar and fat.
“Free farmed” claims began to appear on pork products several years ago. The term means the sows are kept outside but their piglets are put in barns after they’re weaned. But, like free range claims, unless the product carries certification there’s no guarantee that’s happening. The SPCA’s Blue Tick and Freedom Farms’ logo are the two certification marks you’ll see on free farmed pork.
You’ll typically pay a premium for organic products, but an “organic” claim doesn’t mean much unless it comes with independent certification. Local farmers can opt for organic certification from one of four schemes: AsureQuality Organic; BioGro; Demeter; and OrganicFarmNZ. These schemes typically require a minimum of 95% of a product to be organic.
Think a company is trying to pull the wool over your eyes and making misleading claims about its products? Let us know.
You can also complain to the Commerce Commission at email@example.com.