The rise of nutritional branding

Pure, natural and healthy or laden with salt, sugar and saturated fat?
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02.Is it marketing spin?

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. 


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“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.

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