The rise of nutritional branding

Pure, natural and healthy or laden with salt, sugar and saturated fat?
 
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01 .Introduction

nutritional-trademarking-lead

We've looked at more than 200 products whose brand names imply naturalness or healthiness, and found the ingredients in many of them don’t live up to the promise.

For many shoppers, anything that promises to be nutritious is far more likely to find its way into your shopping trolley than something that’s not. Sure enough, supermarkets adorn their shelves with “healthy”, “fresh” and “natural” items. 

On the surface, these types of product may appear to be the next best thing to visiting the farm gate or growing your own organically. But beyond the packaging, the story is often very different. 

Although the Australian Consumer Law and Food Standards Code aim to protect shoppers against misleading advertising, many of these brands rely on trademarks – commonly used to protect intellectual property rights and distinguish specific products from others in the marketplace – to push unsubstantiated nutrition and health implications. 

Should a product be allowed to be sold as “natural” when it includes preservatives, or be marketed as “healthy” when it has lots of added sugar?

For more information about nutritional labelling, please see our Food labelling and advertising section.

Examples

Connotations of “natural” are attached to many products – from All Natural to Be Natural, Go Natural to Nice & Natural – by virtue of their trademarked brand names. According to The George Institute, its database has close to 1300 products and brands that use the word “natural” in their product name or package marketing – but the ingredients may not necessarily reflect this. 

For example, some contain additives such as preservatives, and although others may be technically “natural”, they can also be laden with sodium and saturated fats. Nutritional data from The George Institute on five of the All Natural Bakery Bars indicate they’re all high in saturated fats and sugars.

 natural-cordial-company-lime

   nice-and-natural-nut-bars
The Natural Cordial Company’s lime cordial contains a sulphite preservative.   Nice & Natural Nut and Yoghurt Muesli Bars contain a “yoghurt-flavoured compound” and the popular soy-based emulsifier lecithin.
       
mother-earth-baked-oaty-slices   natural-chip-company-chips  
Mother Earth Baked Oaty Slices spruik their lack of artificial colours, as well as being a high source of fibre and wholegrain cereals, but they’re also high in saturated fat.   While the newly trademarked Natural Chip Company’s sea salt chips are free of chemical additives, the honey soy chicken flavour contains a number of processed ingredients, such as maltodextrin and the colour caramel 1. And both chip flavours are high in saturated fat as they’re cooked in palm oil, but the label lists this as “vegetable oil”.

Loving-earth-chocolate      
Available in health food shops, the Loving Earth Organic Activated Almond & Purple Corn Raw Dark Chocolate Bar is 25% saturated fat; CHOICE considers any food containing more than five per cent to be high in saturated fat.      

 
 

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If companies want to put claims about the healthiness of their food on packaging, I’m very strongly of the view they should be required to have upfront evidence that justifies those claims.
- Prof. Bruce Neal, The George Institute

Professor Bruce Neal from The George Institute for Global Health believes the practice of implying health benefits in trademarks is problematic. 

“The level of information provided makes it almost impossible for consumers to determine whether something is healthy or not,” he says. “If companies want to put claims about the healthiness of their food on packaging, I’m very strongly of the view they should be required to have upfront evidence that justifies those claims.”

From ready meals – marketed to timepoor shoppers as a healthy alternative to fast food – to breakfast cereals, “healthy” snack bars, chips and products marketed to children, trademarks with potentially deceptive claims are rife.

“The main problem we have here is that the food industry is primarily about shareholder value, not about providing a nutritious breakfast, lunch or dinner,” Neal says. 

“As long as this is the case, these opportunities will be used to maximise money, and health won’t really get a look in.” Neal is concerned that consumers can get what he describes as “enormous quantities” of salt, saturated fat and sugar from foods you wouldn’t think were necessarily high in these unhelpful nutrients. 

The primary source of sodium in the Australian diet, for example, is from salt added to manufactured foods. 

Take Weight Watchers’ frozen ready meals as one example of a salty trap. The Australian Nutrient Reference Values set the adequate daily intake of sodium at 920mg, yet the average sodium content of its meals comes in at 892mg, with some options clocking up more than 1000mg. When CHOICE approached Weight Watchers about this, they told us the sodium content of their meals should not be a problem because they’re spruiked to weight-loss members as an “occasional choice” rather than a healthy, everyday option. 

However, consumers who aren’t members but who can purchase these meals in a supermarket are not necessarily armed with this advice. Recommendations of the Labelling Logic report, commissioned by the Forum on Food Regulation in early 2011, called for regulation of the use of words that suggest health implications and closer scrutiny by authorities of trademarks that infer health implications that would otherwise be prohibited under the Food Standards Code. 

While indicating support for both these recommendations, the federal government has also recognised a need to investigate trademark law further, aiming to improve relationships between food and trademark regulators to ensure problematic trademarks are stamped out. Melanie McGrice, dietitian and owner of Health Kick Nutrition, says the grey regulatory area needs to be tightened to eliminate some “sneaky” behaviour.

Too easy being green

As shoppers become more savvy about the environmental impacts of consumerism, businesses are finding ways to capitalise – but there is a difference between tapping into a general environmental awareness and greenwashing for financial gain. Research has found the significant trust consumers place in eco- and enviro-brands has a positive effect on purchasing behaviours and is likely to direct consumers towards products that claim to be less harmful to the environment than their alternatives. Consumers are also often willing to pay a premium for these purchases.

“Fresh”, “safe” and “natural” are trigger words generally shared by products that claim to be good for the environment and those that claim to be good for your health, and it is this link that marketers of fastmoving consumer goods are increasingly coming to rely on. There is no requirement to prove environmental awareness in order to obtain a trademark that suggests this, nor are companies restricted from implying products that are good for the environment are also good for you.

Of the products with eco- and envirobrand names we looked at, many offer poor nutritional content despite their advertised connection to healthiness. Mother Earth Baked Oaty Slices spruik their lack of artificial colours as well as being a high source of fibre and wholegrain cereals, but they’re also high in saturated fat. Similarly, EnviroKidz Organic Koala Crisp and Gorilla Munch Cereals both have added sugar. A number of the Back to Nature and Goodness Superfoods Cereals are also high in sugar.

Tapping into the “free-from” craze, Freelicious Crackers are cooked in palm oil, which is high in saturated fat, as well as processed thickener and emulsifiers. Also available in health food shops, the Loving Earth Organic Activated Almond & Purple Corn Raw Dark Chocolate Bar is 25% saturated fat; CHOICE considers any food containing more than five per cent to be high in saturated fat.

Although trademark law prohibits the registration of a trademark likely to deceive or cause confusion, owners of trademarks have exclusive rights to its use once registered. 

IP Australia, the regulatory authority tasked with approving trademark applications, doesn’t require any nutritional testing of products prior to approval.

Kumudu Ramasundara, the acting general manager of the trademarks and design group at IP Australia, says that while the trademarks registrar has the power to approve or deny trademarks, control of the use of these trademarks falls with someone else – in the case of food products, Food Standards Australia NewZealand (FSANZ), which is enforced by individual state authorities.

FSANZ is in the process of drafting the Standard for Nutrition, Health and Related Claims. The draft standard aims to ensure there is adequate scientific evidence for new health claims.

Under the current transitional standard, a package must not include the word “health” or any derivatives of this word in conjunction with the name of the food. But it is likely a product such as Uncle Toby’s HealthWise cereal, which has added sugar, can dodge this requirement by including the word in a trademark. The transitional standard fails to define just how closely linked words must be to “health”. 

Products such as preserved olives sold under the Always Fresh trademark or the mix of fresh and reconstituted local and imported orange juice sold under The Daily Juice Company banner, will not be covered by the new standard.

Federal trademark law trumps the application of food standards, which is carried out by individual state food authorities. Food labelling law expert Chris Preston says it is likely provisions in the current standard that rule against such trademarks are inconsistent with the trademark law, potentially making for “tremendous confusion”, especially when it comes to the words he describes as the unholy trinity – pure, fresh and natural.

“There is a sense that trademarks enjoy a special privileged status, and although this argument has its merits, we don’t know because there is no case law around this area,” Preston says. Despite this, he argues it wouldn’t be smart for new companies to embark on a marketing strategy that relies on a trademark that can’t be substantiated, because there are still avenues to pursue misleading conduct through the Australian Consumer Law.

The CHOICE verdict

It is important to remember that just because the brand name of a product suggests that it’s healthy or natural doesn’t mean it always is. Supermarket sections and, sometimes, entire aisles are dedicated to products promoted as “healthy”.

Coles and Woolworths have dedicated health food aisles in store and online, and while these aisles contain some healthy foods, such as nuts and dried fruits, they also have products that should be treated as more of an indulgence than a health food. 

CHOICE is part of a government-led process to develop a front-of-pack labelling system that would help consumers know at a glance whether or not a product is healthy, cutting through these claims.

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Energy (kJ per 100g)Fat (per 100g)Saturated fat (per 100g)Sugars (per 100g)Sodium (per 100g)BrandCategory
        
179819.9612.3416.94193All Natural BakeryNutritional branding
177018.5311.4420.12179All Natural BakeryNutritional branding
179819.9612.3416.94193All Natural BakeryNutritional branding
180721.0614.1119.45185All Natural BakeryNutritional branding
181820.2413.5423.11177All Natural BakeryNutritional branding
15701.30.33.8858Arnott'sNutritional branding
16902.50.74760Arnott'sNutritional branding
16402.50.71.71190Arnott'sNutritional branding
16689.55.250.1137Arnott'sNutritional branding
177010.91.43.5684Arnott'sNutritional branding
179013.43.513.5190Be NaturalNutritional branding
192024.48.421.1170Be NaturalNutritional branding
180018.6330.1160Be NaturalNutritional branding
14906.41.617.8180Be NaturalNutritional branding
238041.67.416.950Be NaturalNutritional branding
14504.31.420.7170Be NaturalNutritional branding
15106.81.714.9180Be NaturalNutritional branding
15202.70.618.7220Coles Right StartNutritional branding
14701.70.424.4165Coles Right StartNutritional branding
16401.60.41380EatriteNutritional branding
16001.3126359Enviro KidzNutritional branding
16304136448Enviro KidzNutritional branding
1480.8120.920.414Food for HealthNutritional branding
15701.50.211110Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
174010.93.819.825Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
1750101.420.325Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15302.90.521.338Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15507.71.312.611Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15301.70.521.2239Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
7410.090.027.53853Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
16303.90.69.8120Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
1610113.930.444Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15901.30.49.3120Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15401.60.46.5172Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
179013.76.427.9259Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
202024.918.334.9133Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15601.90.621.6114Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
15802.20.715262Freedom FoodsNutritional branding
161010.17.5400FreeliciousNutritional branding
15749.81.51.1844FreeliciousNutritional branding
15181.90.68.5300FreeliciousNutritional branding
199018.97.922.2170FreeliciousNutritional branding
16202.90.612.5900FreeliciousNutritional branding
1950167.63.1900FreeliciousNutritional branding
17832512.435.836Go NaturalNutritional branding
210034.94.921.516Go NaturalNutritional branding
183525.3336.226Go NaturalNutritional branding
13236.3156.32Go NaturalNutritional branding
165914.63.843.9172Go NaturalNutritional branding
221440.55.721.714Go NaturalNutritional branding
225938.213.136.957Go NaturalNutritional branding
228538.913.837.939Go NaturalNutritional branding
2181.0539.854.5220.1716.39Go NaturalNutritional branding
165712.71.330.4133Go NaturalNutritional branding
2035.0230.7420.2641.4548Go NaturalNutritional branding
193626.88.941.436Go NaturalNutritional branding
1720156.216.5195GoldenvaleNutritional branding
16708.84.711.1275GoldenvaleNutritional branding
15006.41.229.956Goodness SuperfoodsNutritional branding
13704.61.56.626Goodness SuperfoodsNutritional branding
163011.51.518.742Goodness SuperfoodsNutritional branding
15509.31.617.149Goodness SuperfoodsNutritional branding
172081.32.9690HealtheriesNutritional branding
17207.40.92.2722HealtheriesNutritional branding
179011.12.36643HealtheriesNutritional branding
15502.90.6416HealtheriesNutritional branding
4402.60.93.4190Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3601.71.13.1245Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4001.70.71.5290Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4452.51.22.5275Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4002.30.43300Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3652.213.3260Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4251.51.21.3280Lean CuisineNutritional branding
41520.82.7235Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4001.50.72.6300Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3751.50.81.6205Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3951.70.91.5285Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3571.10.50.5230Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4102.61.32.4210Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4062.20.73.2263Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4402.31.55.3280Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4152.61.22.7240Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4252.51.25.1220Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4102.30.71.5275Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3952.20.92.4170Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4151.90.62.2215Lean CuisineNutritional branding
48831.51.4245Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4402.31.11.3235Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4102.51.31.4240Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3401.60.41.8180Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4251.90.90.9220Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4502.50.71.9210Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4552.30.91.6200Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4152.10.60.9230Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4552.50.82.5225Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3751.61.12.2240Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4052.31.31.6285Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3852.41.32.9200Lean CuisineNutritional branding
3902.40.62.1180Lean CuisineNutritional branding
4052.81.42.5175Lean CuisineNutritional branding
1860161.814.8130MacroNutritional branding
17907.70.72.2320MacroNutritional branding
22003516.122.5390MacroNutritional branding
233035.416.116.2340MacroNutritional branding
183015.11.815.2122MacroNutritional branding
277057.34.33.95MacroNutritional branding
286061.81145MacroNutritional branding
2640508.7610MacroNutritional branding
228036.3160.7240MacroNutritional branding
217033.616.329.2800MacroNutritional branding
228033.62.81230MacroNutritional branding
205022.29.31.4390MacroNutritional branding
4010.80.36.5180McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3722.50.72.4250McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
46730.72243McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4762.61.23220McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4741.90.41.5180McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4041.60.43.2210McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
43931.81.6295McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3041.50.31.5240McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
51431.23300McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4232.20.52.2215McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4052.50.42270McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3692.40.62.8240McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4322.51.51.7250McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3502.30.82.3280McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4322.41.22260McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3991.90.45260McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
5262.50.66.6120McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
38710.33260McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3861.20.64190McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
40120.83.8260McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
2661.40.31.4200McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4162.51.42160McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4772.91.32.1200McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3922.40.83.4150McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3921.60.72.3220McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
45531.33200McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
3641.30.42.5210McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
38931.33285McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
4532.10.67175McCain Healthy ChoiceNutritional branding
183323.414.532.1156Mother EarthNutritional branding
180022.213.523.9190Mother EarthNutritional branding
169619.87.924.7152Mother EarthNutritional branding
177021.514.327.8213Mother EarthNutritional branding
226033.915.53.9770Natural Chip CompanyNutritional branding
231035.816.40.5568Natural Chip CompanyNutritional branding
192217.41.927.8333Nature ValleyNutritional branding
193416.1227340Nature ValleyNutritional branding
14901.5110490Nature's PathNutritional branding
16405.6110688Nature's PathNutritional branding
16702.70.311.7447Nature's PathNutritional branding
15104.30.69.911Nature's PathNutritional branding
16104.6113412Nature's PathNutritional branding
16505.6112380Nature's PathNutritional branding
16406112.3533Nature's PathNutritional branding
2150327.929.736Nice and NaturalNutritional branding
215032.76.325.531Nice and NaturalNutritional branding
2100313.822.928Nice and NaturalNutritional branding
214031.87.425.757Nice and NaturalNutritional branding
212030.77.327.941Nice and NaturalNutritional branding
276074111510NorganicNutritional branding
15802.10.414.3564NorganicNutritional branding
15201.10.1714.3562NorganicNutritional branding
15993.40.50.4259Real FoodsNutritional branding
1799121.10210Simply WizeNutritional branding
204729.15.231.124SunNutritional branding
252750.6931.28SunNutritional branding
13678.94.840.433SunNutritional branding
195121.43.93347SunNutritional branding
13306.30.916.290Uncle TobysNutritional branding
15005.51.828.48Uncle TobysNutritional branding
160071.130.1300Uncle TobysNutritional branding
186019.4525.191Weight WatchersNutritional branding
127010.327.5127Weight WatchersNutritional branding
20010.21.7235Weight WatchersNutritional branding
2651.30.31.4270Weight WatchersNutritional branding
4001.70.73.3220Weight WatchersNutritional branding
126010.328.1125Weight WatchersNutritional branding
4101.90.92.7275Weight WatchersNutritional branding
174013.74.418.226Weight WatchersNutritional branding
3402.40.93.3425Weight WatchersNutritional branding
420313.4275Weight WatchersNutritional branding
4251.90.85.1320Weight WatchersNutritional branding
15102.71.515.1330Weight WatchersNutritional branding
13407.41.114.1163Weight WatchersNutritional branding
187020.25.328.5100Weight WatchersNutritional branding
4002.51.13.7355Weight WatchersNutritional branding
191021.44.825.798Weight WatchersNutritional branding
186017.65.420.788Weight WatchersNutritional branding
46520.53.6185Weight WatchersNutritional branding
3601.70.72.8300Weight WatchersNutritional branding
130010.328.1130Weight WatchersNutritional branding
Compare

USING THE TABLE 

Nutrient data is taken from the on-pack nutrition information panel. 

Traffic light criteria are based on the latest nutrition recommendations and dietary guidelines established by government health experts in Australia and internationally. Traffic lights allow you to compare the products at a glance and identify those that contain a little Green light, a moderate amount Orange light or a lot Red light of key nutrients of public concern. 

Total fat (g/100g)  Green light≤3, Orange light3.1-19.9, Red light≥20

Saturated fat (g/100g)  Green light≤1.5, Orange light1.6-4.9, Red light≥5

Sugars (g/100g)  Green light≤5, Orange light5.1-14.9, Red light≥15

Sodium (mg/100g) Green light≤120, Orange light121-599, Red light≥600


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