The vast array of health and nutrition claims on food packaging can confuse even the most health-savvy consumer. And food manufacturers often use misleading claims to make us think we are getting a better nutritional deal than we actually are.
“One problem is that a health claim is often advocating a particular product out of context with respect to the whole diet for an individual,” explains Dr Kieron Rooney, a registered nutritionist at The University of Sydney. “An example is ‘low-carb’ bars that are infiltrating supermarket shelves as low-carb diets experience a renaissance.
“If a consumer decides to eat two or three of these bars, thinking that because the product is ‘low-carb’ they can eat more, this will discount the original claim and the consumer will have eaten more than they typically would.”
This is known as the health “halo” effect: overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim. Landmark experiments by Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab in 2006 showed that people who saw a “low-fat” label on snack foods ate up to 50 per cent more of the products. Consumers who were overweight were especially likely to eat larger than recommended portions of the “low-fat” items. It is believed that this is because people underestimate the kilojoules and feel less guilty about their perceived “healthy” choice, therefore giving themselves permission to eat more.
With health labels, it’s not simply a case of what they say, but what they imply, says Jennie Brand-Miller, professor of human nutrition at The University of Sydney. “It’s the ‘negative’ statements such as ‘fat-free’ (implying this is good for you), ‘no artificial colours or flavourings’ (implying that these substances cause harm and that the product is healthy), and more recently ‘gluten-free’ (implying gluten is harmful for your body). These messages fuel nutrition misinformation and confusion that is hard to shake.”
Alexandra Jones, a public health lawyer from The George Institute for Global Health, agrees. “Many health claims are simply a marketing gimmick to garner consumer attention. Many of them are inconsequential to consumers. For example, ‘high protein’, when there is no evidence that most people need more protein in their diets.”
Another reason health claims can be misleading is in regard to the types of foods they are placed on, Dr Rooney goes on to explain. “Typically, highly processed or ultra-processed products have originated from a ‘healthy’ food base such as vegetables, fruit or dairy. But by the time they have reached the supermarket shelf in their processed form, one cannot be so sure that these products promote any form of health.”
Naturopath and dietitian Ben Brown, believes that health claims are largely used by the food industry to manipulate the consumer into buying their product. “In no healthy guidelines anywhere in the world does it state ‘eat food with advertised health benefits’. While some foods with marketed health or nutritional benefits are of course genuinely healthy, the indisputably healthiest foods – fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, wholegrains and legumes – tend to have little or no marketing or health claims.”
Something else to consider when assessing health claims is portion sizes, explains Rooney. “Often the health claims are made in reference to the amount of a particular ingredient per serve. And that per serve recommendation is something that the industry can influence heavily, and in some cases outright determine for themselves.” In reality, the recommended serving can be quite different to the portion an individual actually eats.
Common “Health” Claims
A “low-fat” food must contain no more than 3g of fat per 100g of food, or no more than 1.5g fat per 100g if it is a liquid. However, this is by no means a marker of how healthy the product is, says registered dietician Amanda Kruse. “With low-fat or fat-free products, we generally see other ingredients, like sugar or salt, added to increase palatability.” In fact, in many cases these so-called healthier alternatives are actually higher in both sugar and kilojoules than their original versions.
A “fat-free” product must contain less than 0.5g fat per 100g, but again, this does not mean that the product is low in sugar, kilojoules, or is indeed healthy at all. As a marketing ploy, this claim is often used on products that don’t normally contain fat anyway, such as sweets and sodas. This diverts attention from the fact the product contains high levels of other ingredients, such as sugar. Dietitians and nutritionists point out that fat-free is not necessarily desirable anyway, as good fats are an essential part of a balanced diet.
No added sugar
This term indicates that a product has not had sugars added to it. It does not necessarily mean that the product is low in sugar, however, as many products carrying this label contain naturally occurring sugars from fruit and/or milk. In addition, some products labelled “no added sugar” actually contain artificial sweeteners. Gram for gram, sweeteners can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, which can drive sweet cravings that lead consumers to eating more overall.
A “gluten-free” product doesn’t contain any gluten-containing grains (wheat, spelt, rye, oats or barley). Often, “gluten-free” is used as a marketing tactic by food manufacturers on products that don’t contain gluten anyway. “Using the term gluten-free interchangeably with healthy is one of my biggest frustrations as a dietitian,” explains Kruse. “From a nutrition standpoint, gluten-free biscuits, pastas and breads are sometimes higher in kilojouls and/or have less B vitamins, iron and fibre than their gluten-containing counterparts. Not to mention that these items are more expensive, and can have added sugars or fats to help with texture and palatability.” Kruse says gluten does not need to be avoided unless an allergy, intolerance or specific dietary need has been identified, and that gluten-free foods have little merit for most people.
Wholegrain foods are products that use every part of the grain, including the outer layers, bran and germ. However, the “wholegrain” label is not always what it may seem, says Professor Brand-Miller. “The grain can be ground and finely divided, mashed and slashed. It means that you can take a wholegrain cereal, add water and process it until it has very little left in the way of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) – so much so that most manufacturers feel obliged to fortify it.” Additionally, the term “a good source of wholegrains” is increasingly being used to mask the inclusion of unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and salt. It should not be interpreted as a definitive marker of health, says Brand-Miller.
“The term ‘natural’ connotes a health ‘halo’, but has no legal definition and is thus pretty meaningless,” says lawyer Alexandra Jones. “But consumers think that anything that is ‘natural’ must be better for them.” Rooney adds: “Every processed food contains an ingredient that could lay claim to being natural, but if you are consuming that ingredient in any other form than how it was grown, it is not natural any more.” One example is sugar, which can be defined as a natural product. “If one goes through the steps from growing sugar cane to ultimately ending up with purified white sugar crystals on our table, the end product is far from my definition of natural,” says Rooney.
Although “organic” is not a claim directly relating to health or nutrition, it is often marketed as such. Certified organic produce is farmed in a particular way, and may have some environmental benefits, but it doesn’t give a product automatic healthy status. To put simply, organic sugar is still sugar, and an organic bag of chips is still a bag of chips. “Claims on food labels are a marketing strategy to convince consumers that one product is better than another, when the real consideration should be whether or not they should purchase the pre-packaged, ultra-processed product, or a ‘real’ food a few aisles away,” says Rooney. His advice to consumers when making food choices based on health claims on food labels? Simply don’t, he says. “Make your food choices on the basis of processing. Go for the minimally processed foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, certain cuts of meat and plain dairy. These are the things most likely to be good for you but they don’t carry any labels. If a product needs marketing tricks and catchphrases to convince you it’s healthy, maybe it’s trying too hard.”