“What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick.”
Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual
Nutritional labelling has hit the news recently. The Heart Foundation announced it is dropping the “healthy heart tick” from fast foods, including their controversial approval of some “golden arches” menu items. Meanwhile the consumer group Choice, has launched “Shame the Claim”, encouraging consumers to name and shame companies that spruik products with misleading nutritional information.
It can be argued that nutrition claims are essentially a marketing trick rather than a means to help people make healthier choices. If the situation were reversed the labels would alert us to the health risks instead. Imagine picking up a packet of cereal that declared “high in sugar” and “too much salt for a child”.
Selective claims such as “low fat”, “high in protein” and “vitamins and minerals” on the front of food packaging distracts the consumer from critically assessing the nutrition panel, printed in small font on the back of the packet. Who has the time, and keen eyesight, to read the fine print? A good example is low and no fat dairy products. When you take the fat out of a food it’s almost higher in something else, in this case lactose (sugar). The fat content provides mouth feel, a sense of fullness and flavour, when you remove fat from a product that is mainly water it becomes virtually tasteless. The consumer is given a choice of too nutritional “evils” high in fat or high in sugar.
“Is a slightly “better for you” food product necessarily a good choice?”
Marion Nestle, writer and food advocate.
Choice’s gallery of shame has many examples of misleading nutritional claims, from “30% less fat” (than what?) to “low salt”. There are some iconic products named and shamed on the site for their ambiguous front of package labelling, including Rice Bubbles and Milo. A personal favourite in the gallery is cranberries. Contrary to popular belief the berry is incredibly tart, with little or no actual sweetness. Despite their natural looking appearance, all cranberries on the supermarket shelf in Australia are sweetened. “Craisins”, for example, contain about 40% added sugar.
Food manufacturers will always “accentuate the positive to eliminate the negative” when it comes to health claims. They’ve even invented new words, such as “lite”, to dupe us. A recent survey I conducted on social media cited many consumer pet hates about nutritional and other misleading food claims. The most popular gripes included these:
• misuse of terms like natural, free-range and organic
• unrealistic serving sizes used on the nutritional panels
• panels that are obscured by folds and flaps in the packaging
• no added sugar (when laden with fruit juice concentrates
• promises of “less fat”.
One respondent suggested that “you need a PhD to figure out nutritional labels”. But is the “traffic light” system any better? It could be if there were strict criteria, especially concerning the use of realistic sized portions.
But perhaps the best advice comes from Michael Pollan, once more.
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
If a nutritional claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.