Health claims on foods

Good nutrition messages or just good marketing?
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  • Updated:21 Dec 2009

01.Health claims on food


Dob in a dodgy health claim

Have you seen a claim in an ad or on a label that you don't think adds up? Maybe it sounds too good to be true or it's being made about a product that you don't think is healthy. Email us.

The issue

For the last 16 years regulation of nutrition and health claims on food labels that protect consumers’ health and doesn't mislead them about the supposed benefit of consuming a particular food.

Nutrition claims on food packaging tell us about the nutrient content of a food and include statements such as “low fat”, “97% fat free, and “no added sugar”. Health claims tell us about the potential health benefit of a consuming a particular product, for example, “reduces cholesterol” or “helps to reduce your risk of heart disease”.

What we want

CHOICE does not support the use of nutrition and health claims on food labels. In our opinion health claims will assist manufacturers to market their products on the basis of nutrient content or a potential health benefit. The reality is that health claims are most likely to be used on highly processed foods rather that the fresh foods we should all be eating more of. For instance, we don't think Kellogg's Nutri-Grain should boast of containing "protein for growth and muscle development" when it's high in added sugar and salt and low in fibre.

Despite our concerns, governments have decided to allow manufacturers to make health claims. Enforceable regulation will be required to ensure that these claims do not mislead consumers about how healthy foods really are.

In countries like the United States, where health claims have been used for a number of years, there is little evidence that these claims have been successful in encouraging healthy eating habits. Instead the incidence of obesity has markedly continues to increase.

What we’re doing

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is currently developing a standard to regulate nutrient and health claims on food labels. CHOICE is a member of a committee of industry stakeholders, public health and nutrition experts, State and Commonwealth government representatives and consumer advocates, advising FSANZ throughout the standard development process.

CHOICE will work to ensure that the standard protects consumers from claims on food that cannot be substantiated or lead them to believe that an individual product will be of greater benefit than it actually is. In May 2009, we provided a submission  outlining our support for proposed changes that would make FSANZ responsible for re-approving general level health claims before they can be made. This is a vast improvement on the previous model that would leave it up to food manufacturers to substantiate any health claim they wanted to make.

Australian consumers have already waited 16 years for a vital food labelling standard that will ensure they aren't misled by health hype that's not backed up by good evidence or is used to promote an otherwise unhealthy food. Unfortunately, we have to wait a while longer, as the Food Regulation Ministerial Council has announced it wont' finalise the almost-complete Nutrition, Health and Regulated Claims standard until it sees the results of a bigger review of food labelling laws. In a May 2009 letter, CHOICE urged Health Ministers to reconsider this decision and finalise the new standard immediately, independent of the labelling review.

CHOICE continues to monitor products already in the marketplace and bring dubious claims to the attention of the relevant state or territory enforcement agency or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. For example, as a result of a CHOICE investigation into juice bars, the ACCC and some state authorities are paying closer attention to claims made about juice bar products and similar pre-packaged juices, and taking action where necessary. Unfortunately, our complaint about Glaceau Vitamin Water wasn't successful.

What we’ve done

In 2008, CHOICE - in collaboration with public health groups such as the Cancer Council - conducted some consumer research to see how Australian shoppers use and understand a range of front of pack nutrition labelling systems. They included a colour-coded traffic light system developed by the UK Food Standards Agency and the % Daily Intake guide (%DI) already used by some manufacturers in Australia.

The results of our the research showed that while the majority of respondents thought that the colour-coded %DI system would be the easiest to interpret, when asked to identify the healthier of two products within specific categories, consumers were better at picking the healthier product using the traffic light system.

CHOICE was successful in lobbying Ministers to ensure that biomarker health claims are regulated as high level health claims and subject to pre-market assessment and approval by FSANZ. A biomarker is an indicator for a disease or condition, for example blood cholesterol is a biomarker for heart disease and bone density is a biomarker for osteoporosis.

Food industry representatives and some state Ministers were lobbying to have some biomarker claims treated as general level claims. This would mean that they would not be substantiated by FSANZ. CHOICE believes that many consumers would make an association between the biomarker and the relevant disease, and for this reason biomarker claims should be regulated in the same way as claims about serious diseases, which are considered high-level health claims.

What you can do

If you see a health claim on a food label that you think may be untrue or misleading contact the health department in your State or Territory, or the NSW Food Authority if you live in NSW. Alternatively, you could send the details of your complaint to the CHOICE and we’ll endeavour to bring it to the attention of the relevant enforcement agency.

Dob in a dodgy health claim

Have you seen a claim in an ad or on a label taht you don't think adds up? Maybe it sounds too good to be true or it's being made about a product that you don't think is healthy. Tell us about it here.

More information

Submission: Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Preliminary Final Assessment Report (May 2007)

Submission: Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Draft Assessment Report (March 2006)

Submission: Nutrition, health and related claims (October, 2004) 

Biomarker claims (Consuming Interest, Autumn 2004) 

Letter: Biomarker claims policy options (27 June 2003) 

ACA withdraws from the Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Policy Advisory Group (3 June 2003)

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