Thanks to the rise and rise of 'nutritional branding', many products' brand names imply that they're natural, healthy or fresh, but we've found they often don't live up to their promise.

On the surface, these foods may appear to be the next best thing to visiting the farm gate or growing your own organically, but beyond the packaging, the story can be very different.

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

Natural by name, not by nature

Many products you'll find in the supermarket have connotations of being "natural" by virtue of their trademarked brand names – for example, All Natural, Be Natural, Go Natural, Nice & Natural. The George Institute for Global Health's database lists close to 1300 products and brands that use the word "natural" in their product name or package marketing – but in many cases the ingredients are far from it.

A "natural" trademarked product might actually contain additives such as preservatives, and while others may be technically natural, they can still be laden with sodium and saturated fats.

 

Nice & Natural Nut and Yoghurt Muesli Bars contain a "yoghurt-flavoured compound" and the popular soy-based emulsifier lecithin.

 
While the 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. And both chip flavours are high in saturated fat as they're cooked in palm oil, but the label lists this as "vegetable oil".

Marketing smoke and mirrors

Professor Bruce Neal from The George Institute for Global Health tells CHOICE the practice of implying health benefits in trademarks is a big problem.

"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 time-poor 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.

Too easy being 'green'

As shoppers become savvier about the environmental impacts of consumerism, businesses are finding new ways to capitalise on this. However there is a difference between tapping into general environmental awareness and greenwashing for financial gain.

Research has found that consumers put a lot of trust in eco- and enviro-brands and these connotations have a positive effect on our purchasing behaviour. As consumers we 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 are increasingly capitalising on. There is no requirement to prove environmental awareness in order to obtain a trademark that suggests it, and companies aren't restricted from implying products that are good for the environment are also good for you.

Of the products we looked at with eco- and enviro- brand names, many offer poor nutritional content despite their advertised association with healthiness. For example, 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.

The regulation dilemma

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

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

Former 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 Australian Consumer Law.