Truth in food labelling

Nutrition claims on food labels often don't tell the full story.
 
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01 .Selective labelling

Whether you’re in a rush to get to work, pick the kids up from school or get home in time to prepare for your dinner party, grocery shopping is regularly done in a hurry. And when there's no time to read the fine print on the back of food packaging, most people rely on front-of-pack claims to choose healthy products.

The problem is, these claims are often selective. Enticing promises of reduced salt may be a cover for a product high in saturated fat, and confectionery products in particular are notorious for distracting you from their sugary composition by boasting about their fat free status.

To illustrate, we picked up a random selection of supermarket products that make nutrition claims and applied nutrient traffic light labels, the criteria for which are based on the latest nutrition recommendations and dietary guidelines established by government health experts in Australia and internationally.

For more information on Nutrition labelling, see Labelling and advertising.

What you see and what you don’t

(but what traffic light labelling would show you at a glance)

 

Gold Medal Brand Pork Krackles. "Great – yummy pork crackling snacks and look how healthy they sound. I must grab some for pre-dinner drinks." 

Pork-Crackles

 

The Natural Confectionery Co. Soft Jellies Fruit Salad. "They’re all natural and practically fat free so they must be a good choice for my kids."
Natural-Soft-jellies


 

McVitie's Digestive The Original. "Full of wholemealy goodness and without hydrogenated fat nasties, what better bickie to dip in my cuppa." 

McVities-Digestive

 

Uncle Tobys Yoghurt Topps Apricot. "Why bother with my usual bowl of Shredded Wheat when I can get my wholegrains from a bar?"

Uncle-Tobys-bars 

 

Fantastic Rice Crackers Sweet Chilli & Sour Cream. "So moreish, and with just 1% saturated fat it won’t matter if I have more than one handful."

Fantastic-crackers 

 

Kellogg's Crispix Honey.  "What could be bad about fat free ‘crispy pillows of corn with a hint of honey’?"
Crispix-honey


 

Using-the-traffic-lights

 
 

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As part of our ongoing work on food labelling, CHOICE made a detailed submission to the independent food labelling law and policy review panel in 2010, highlighting seven demands for better food labels to help consumers make informed choices about their food - how healthy it is, where it comes from, and how it’s been produced. The panel's report was released in January and includes 61 recommendations. The government is set to respond to these recommendations in December.

For more balanced information about the healthiness of packaged food, CHOICE is calling for the introduction of traffic light labelling to provide consumers with at-a-glance nutrition information about the food they purchase. See CHOICE's Better Food Labelling campaign for more details.

Why traffic light labelling should get the green light

Some manufacturers use percentage daily intake (%DI) labelling systems to provide you with more information – often in conjunction with nutrition claims – however these systems have limitations.

First and foremost, they require you to undertake onerous calculations and estimations of your likely intake of nutrients from all foods that you may eat throughout the day – something that’s not quick or easy, even with a handy app on your iPhone. In addition, the daily intake values on which the %DI system is based aren’t relevant to the entire population, as energy and nutrient needs vary depending on age, gender and physical activity levels, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Another weakness of the %DI system is that it’s based on manufacturer-determined serve sizes that are open to manipulation and may not reflect the serve sizes that you eat in reality.

In contrast, traffic light labelling enables you to make healthy choices at a glance by providing visual and interpretive information about whether products contain high, moderate or low levels of the key nutrients of public health concern – total fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. Importantly, research has shown that shoppers are more likely to correctly identify healthy foods using the traffic light system than using other systems (including %DI).

In the UK, about a third of products carry nutrient traffic lights. The system, while still voluntary, is used by two of the four major supermarkets, as well as by manufacturers including McCain.

Does a red light mean no go?

A red traffic light doesn’t necessarily mean don’t buy - it’s a visual indicator that a product is high in a less desirable nutrient, prompting you to perhaps take a closer look at the ingredients list. You may just need to be conscious of how much of, and how often, you eat the product rather than avoid it altogether.

A red light for total fat on a muesli bar, for example, may indicate a high nut (and therefore ‘good fat’) content rather than an overload of less beneficial added fats – which you can confirm by checking what’s higher up on the ingredients list. And a red light for sugar on an ice-cream emblazoned with fat free claims ensures that you’re also aware of its ‘not so healthy’ attributes before you buy.

Shame the claim

Have you been seduced by nutrient or health claims only to find on closer inspection that the food doesn't live up to its healthy image? Support CHOICE's Better Food Labelling campaign by sending us examples of products where the claims don’t tell the whole nutritional story.

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