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Opinion: Plenty to choose from

We’re a contrary bunch at Consumer NZ. We launched the Bad Taste Food Awards this year to bring prominence to the far-fetched marketing claims made by some manufacturers. What we hadn’t expected was more than 200 entries. We’re not sure whether that makes us happy or sad!

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We have rules that should stop manufacturers making false or misleading claims about their foods, particularly health claims. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt in this gig, food manufacturers love to push the boundaries. Of the thousands of foods in supermarkets, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain received the most nominations (63). What riled people was its promotion as “iron man food”, “a source of protein and fibre” and “fuel and energy for active teens”. What it actually is though, is more than a quarter sugar.

So how does it achieve four out of five stars in the voluntary health star rating system (HSR)? Last year, Kellogg’s reduced sugar and sodium content, and increased the fibre in Nutri-Grain. HSRs consider a food’s overall nutritional value, so positive ingredients, such as fibre, can offset negative ingredients, such as sugar.

Nestle’s Milo was another popular nominee. It claims Milo (HSR four-and-a-half stars) as “a great nourishing drink that helps kids get the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to take on the day”. But as well as the “eight vitamins and minerals”, Milo is almost 50% sugar. What gives?

Nestle calculates the rating on an “as prepared” basis. The high rating is after it’s mixed with skim milk. Take out the nutritional benefits of skim milk and Milo achieves one-and-a-half stars.

We’re pushing the regulators for caps on the HSRs manufacturers can achieve when their foods are high in unhealthy ingredients. Otherwise consumers will lose confidence in a system that is meant to assist them making healthier decisions. See here for the recipients of our inaugural Bad Taste Food Awards. Sadly there was plenty from which to choose — kids’ cereals packed with sugar, to “superfruit bars”, which we think are more accurately described as mainly fruit-free.

Equally disappointing was the announcement last month that after five years of consideration we are no closer to compelling food manufacturers to identify products such as palm oil on food labels. Despite surveys showing most people want added oils and sugars identified on labels, it appears the politicians are pandering once again to the powerful food industry lobby. This is shameful.

You can be assured we will continue to push for this important consumer information to be made available — on health and environmental grounds.

But this is the season of good cheer. We have made good progress this year on many important consumer issues. It would be Scrooge-like of us to expect you to ignore the call of plum duff, ice-cream and chocolate. Have a fantastic Christmas. Indulge yourselves. And don’t forget to use Consumer test results and research if those Boxing Day bargains cause involuntary spending spasms.

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.

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