2. Health hype
There’s no shortage of products that want you to believe you’ll be healthier if you eat them regularly, but all too often their claims don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Uncle Tobys Healthwise for Heart & Circulatory System contains betaglucan, “a soluble fibre found in oats which helps lower cholesterol reabsorption”, and wholegrain fibre “to help maintain the heart’s wellbeing”. While none of this is untrue, you’d have to munch your way through several servings every day to achieve the promised benefits. And Nestlé Club chocolate may well be “a rich source of antioxidants” but it also contains 19% saturated fat and 50% sugars. With so many messages of this type on the supermarket shelves, it’s hard to believe current labelling regulations don’t actually allow health claims (except in relation to added folic acid). Specifically, labels are not permitted to include the word “health” in conjunction with the name of the food, or refer to “any disease or physiological condition”. But with labelling regulations currently under review, for now it’s Rafferty’s Rules – and inserting “health” into a registered trade name such as Healthwise is a neat trick to get round the regulations.
3. Still call Australia home
The Food Standards Code requires the country of origin to be stated on the label, but there’s plenty of scope for evasion and obfuscation.
A company can be “Australian owned” but manufacture its products offshore; a product that claims to be “Made in Australia” could be mainly imported food that’s been packaged here. The best you can hope for is “Product of Australia” (or “Produced in Australia”). This claim can only be used if all significant ingredients used in the food originated here. Extra Juicy may be 100% Australian owned but most of the juice is imported; Juice Shot Vitaboost claims to “provide a combination of the finest Australian fruits”, but actually contains more imported than Australian ingredients.
4. Guide or guile
Many processed foods now have daily intake guide “thumbnails” on the front of the pack. But daily intake guides can be misleading because they’re based on serving sizes that manufacturers can adjust to present the product in the best possible light. Only someone with a sparrow’s appetite would be satisfied with the specified serving of 50g of McCain Pizza Perfection Thin Crust Pizza. And a CHOICE survey found that men helping themselves to breakfast cereals on average took 49% more than the serving size recommended on the packet, while women took 26% more.
We believe Australia should use the traffic light system that awards red, amber or green to foods based on their total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. This system is most effective in helping you identify heathier foods, and can’t be manipulated by manufacturers as it’s based on nutrients per 100g rather than sneaky serving sizes.
5. Blinded by science
True science provides solid evidence based on systematic observation and deduction, but food and drink manufacturers have their own take on the scientific method. Powerade Isotonic claims to be “scientifically proven to help you perform at your peak longer”, but when we looked for evidence of this we found only two inconsistent studies that so far are not published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Vivar Nanowater claims to be “ultrafiltered pure water for accelerated hydration … (that) undergoes a unique nano-filtration process (to) remove impurities and convert the structure of water to smaller and more numerous molecules”. This may sound impressive, but when compared with what’s actually known about the molecular structure of water, it’s complete nonsense.
6. Fat-free or fat-loaded
Gippsland Dairy Berry Twist Yoghurt is 94% fat-free, which means, of course, it actually contains 6% fat – a lot of fat for yoghurt. Worse, Gippsland Dairy and Fantastic Chicken Flavour Rice Crackers (which contain 5% fat) shouldn’t be making this claim at all, because the industry code of practice limits “X% fat-free” claims to foods containing no more than 3% fat. You’ll also often see these claims on products, such as confectionery, which don’t contain any fat. Allen’s Mini Snakes may claim to be 99% fat-free, but this doesn’t make the product any less sugary.
7. Faux fruit
We should all be eating at least two serves of fruit a day. But it’s fresh fruit, not packaged fruit, that’s healthy. Uncle Tobys Fruit Fix claims to be “99% fruit ingredients” and to provide “1 serve of fruit in every snack”, but one of these snacks contains only about half the dietary fibre and vitamin C that you’d get from eating a medium-sized apple – and there’s no guarantee this highly processed product contains the antioxidants and other healthy trace nutrients found in fresh fruit.
IXL All About the Fruit Apricot Spread sounds fruity, but contains less fruit (36%) than regular jam. Pomegranate and blueberries are good for antioxidants, but SPC Sliced Pears with Pomegranate & Blueberry Juice contains only 8% of both.
8. Tick, tick, tick
It’s easy to assume that, much like the National Heart Foundation Tick, any tick on a food label means the product meets certain nutrition criteria that could benefit your health. But often what these ticks represent is nothing more than something obvious and trivial. Like many other cereals, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain contains added vitamins and minerals but is also one of the least nutritious – low in fibre and with far too much sugar and salt. YoGo Triple Trek is aimed at small children; sugar is its second major ingredient.
9. Sources of confusion
Claims such as “source of dietary fibre” mean less than you might think. You’ll see fibre claims on breakfast cereals, for example, that are well below average in fibre content. The industry code of practice allows this claim on a food that contains not less than 1.5g of fibre per serving, which amounts to a modest 5% fibre for cereals with a 30g serving. This isn’t enough, in our view, for a food that should boost your fibre intake for the whole day. Look for the claims “very high fibre” or “excellent source of fibre”. These are more meaningful because the food should then contain at least 6% fibre, regardless of serving size.
10. Image magic
A juicy strawberry fruit snack? A delicious peaches and mango dessert? Florida’s Natural Au’some Fruit Nuggets actually contain no real fruit at all (only juice and purée) – the only strawberry in sight is a 1% trace of strawberry juice made from concentrate. SPC Peaches in Mango Flavoured Jelly tempts you with an image of a ripe peach and juicy-looking slices of mango, but peaches are only a minor ingredient (28%) – there’s more water and pear juice – and there’s only a trace of mango purée. But note the tricky graphics, with “flavoured” in much smaller print than the rest of the product name. It’s illegal for food labels to display misleading images, but some manufacturers sail close to the wind.
11. Let there be lite
“Light” or “lite” usually means less fat, less sugar or fewer kilojoules. But what’s “extra light olive oil”? It’s actually only light in taste and colour – it packs in the same kilojoules as any other olive oil. Western Star Ultra Light Dairy Blend really does contain “70% less fat than margarine” – but that’s not quite as impressive as they’d have you believe. More relevantly, this product contains only 27% less saturated fat than regular polyunsaturated margarine spread.
12. Less than free-range
If you care about animal welfare, you may wish to pay extra for free-range eggs in the hope the chickens that laid them have a better life. Unfortunately, in
Australia there’s no legally enforceable definition of what free-range actually means. Most eggs sold as free-range in the supermarkets are laid by hens kept under conditions that fall well short of standards set by animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA. Producers can effectively make up their own rules. The only way to be sure that “free-range” really means anything is to look for organic certification (organic eggs, meat and dairy products must come from free-range animals, and organic standards clearly define what free-range means), or certification by independent organisations such as the RSPCA or or the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA).
So what can you do? Food labelling regulations are currently under review. You can back up CHOICE’s call for mandatory frank and informative labels by sending us examples of misleading or deceptive food labels you come across. Where possible, please send the actual label to:
Food Labels, CHOICE, Reply Paid 63621, Marrickville, NSW 2204; or scan and email to email@example.com