Are nutrition claims on packaged foods misleading?
Published: 9 September 2019
Do you struggle to choose ‘healthy’ products at the supermarket? You’re not alone. Find out the meaning of some common nutrition claims and what to look for on a food label.
Why are food labels confusing to understand?
Supermarket shopping can be overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to make good choices for your family. Whether you read the front, back or side of a food packet there’s a lot to take in. We can easily forget that food companies will highlight helpful nutrients in a product like fibre, without shining the spotlight over the things that make a product less healthy, like sugar.
You may see words on a food packet that sound healthy like ‘natural’ or ‘real’ or ‘no added sugar’. Keep in mind that these words are used to sell, and will often make a food product seem much healthier than it really is. Research has shown that the use of these words can mean we overestimate how healthy a food product really is1.
We recommend basing your food shop around real foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, grains and lean meat. However, the reality is most of us will include some packaged food products in our weekly shop, to save preparation time or money.
Common nutrition claims and what they mean
Food companies must follow a set of rules known as the Food Code to help prevent misleading claims being made about a food product2. Not all claims are covered in the Food Code.
Here are some common ones that you’ve likely come across:
‘Reduced’, ‘Light’ or ‘Lite’
A food product that is labelled as ‘Reduced’, ‘Light’ or ‘Lite’ must be at least 25% lower in at least one typical nutrient, such as sugar, fat or sodium than the standard product2. For example, a ‘Lite’ soy milk contains 70% less fat than the regular version.
No refined sugar
There is no rule around the use of ‘no refined sugar’ on food labels. This claim is misleading because it doesn’t mean the product has no sugar. It just means that there are no ‘refined’ sugars like white table sugar, but it may still contain sugar from ‘natural’ sources like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar or dried fruit. These alternative sugars act the same as refined sugars in our body and aren’t any healthier.
Contains real fruit or vegetables
Toddler and kid snacks like fruit sticks, are often advertised as made with ‘real’ fruit or vegetables. The fruit or vegetables usually come from pastes, juices or purees and this doesn’t mean the product is automatically healthy or a low sugar option. It’s best to rely on fresh, frozen or canned fruit and vegetables to get fibre and nutrients instead of packaged products.
There is no rule around the use of the words ‘natural’ on food labels. It’s often placed on food products to make them appear healthier. However, it can disguise products that are high in saturated fat, sugar or salt. The most natural foods, like fruit and vegetables, don’t have a food label.
No artificial colours or flavours
This means the colours or flavours in the food product are from natural sources (like vegetables, herbs or spices) instead of artificial sources. These words are often used to sell snacks and confectionary, but it doesn’t mean the product is automatically healthy.
Oven baked not fried
There is no rule around the use of ‘baked not fried’ on food labels. It’s often on crackers or potato chips to make them appear healthier. However, it’s usually just disguising products that are high in saturated fat and salt.
Source of fibre
A food product that is labelled as a ‘Good source of fibre’ must have at least 4 grams of dietary fibre per serve2. You may see this on breakfast cereals, muesli bars and crackers. Many of these products are processed and we recommend reading the back of the nutrition label to get the full picture.
A food product that is labelled as a ‘Good source of protein’ must have at least 10 grams of protein per serve2. You may see yoghurt and muesli bars advertised as having extra protein. Remember these foods can be more expensive and most foods that are a good source of protein like legumes, eggs and meat won’t have a label or need to make this claim.
A “Gluten free” food product must not contain2:
- any detectable gluten
- any oats (or their products)
- any cereals containing gluten (or their products).
If a food label says “Contains Gluten" or "Contains traces of gluten" it may have sources of gluten (such as cross-contamination) that are not included in the list of ingredients and should be avoided by people who need to follow a strict gluten free diet for health reasons.
A gluten free product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier and shouldn’t be chosen over a regular product if there is no need to eat a gluten free diet.
The bottom line
If you include plenty of whole foods in your diet like fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and lean meats, you’ll save time because there’s no need to look at food labels for these products. Don’t be fooled by misleading claims on packets. If you have the time, turn the packet around to read the ingredients list and nutrition label to get a more reliable picture.
How to read food labels
1. Iles I, Nan Xiaoli, Verrill L (2017). Nutrient Content Claims: How They Impact Perceived Healthfulness of Fortified Snack Foods and the Moderating Effects of Nutrition Facts Labels. Health Communication; 33 10; P 1308 - 1316
2. Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (2016) – Standard 1.2.7 – Nutrition, health and related claims