A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explored this, asking whether the nutritional profile of foods with such nutrient claims are actually healthy.1
Researchers examined data for over 80 million food and beverage purchases by 40,000 U.S. households between 2008-2012.
They found 13% and 35% of food and beverages respectively had a low nutrient content claim. Low-fat was the most popular, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar, and low-sodium.
Yet there is a lack of consistency about the true meaning of the claims. The claims were not necessarily a reliable indicator of a product’s nutritional quality.
“Our results demonstrate that for overall packaged foods and beverages, purchases featuring a low-/no-nutrients claim do not necessarily offer better overall nutritional profiles or even better profiles for the particular nutrients that are the subject of the claim, relative to other choices with no claim,” lead study author Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, said. “This is likely due in part to “low” or “reduced” claims being relative within brands or specific food categories.”
This can be confusing for consumers trying to make the best choice.
Take the example of a low-sugar cookie. It has less sugar than the original cookie from that same food manufacturer, but it could still contain more sugar than other cookies. Then, when you consider the other ingredients in the cookie, like refined heavily processed white flour and oils which aren’t great for health, are nutrient poor, and can be energy (kilojoule) dense, it’s not really shaping up to be a ‘healthier’ snack!
“In other words,” said Dr. Taillie, “a low-/no-nutrient claim means different things for different foods. This could potentially lead to confusion if consumers focus on seeking out products with specific nutrient claims or use a claim to justify the purchase of less-healthy foods. In fact, these results suggest (but are not conclusive) that in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar, or fat actually may be more likely to have low-/no-content claims.”
Ultimately, research like this can contribute to evidence for what shapes consumers buying behaviour, and what can be done to encourage purchases of products that are actually better for health, like adding warning labels to sugar-sweetened beverages.
With claims on being low or free of sugar, in Australia be aware of the following:2
- ‘Low’ means sugar content is <5g sugar per 100g for solid food, and <2.5g per 100ml for liquid food.
- ‘Reduced’ or ‘Light/Lite’ means the product contains 25% less sugars than a similar food.
- ‘Unsweetened’ means no added sugar or intense sweeteners like mannitol or xylitol.
- The higher up the ingredient list the added sugar, the more of the product is made up of added sugar.
- There are over 60 different names for added sugar. The product may not have ‘cane sugar’ or ‘sucrose’ and therefore labelled as ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no refined sugar’, but may have a syrup, concentrated fruit juice or some other added sugar instead. Added sugar is added sugar, regardless of the source, though the different added sugars have varying ratios of free glucose and free fructose.
Health or nutrient claims are a common marketing tactic, and in theory, the claims on labels can make it easier to pick up a packet and go if you are watching out for a specific ingredient.
But when you dig a little deeper, like reading the ingredient list, what is written there? What is the overall quality of the ingredients in the food or drink?
When choosing a healthier product, good quality, nutrient-dense ingredients are important. For example, we are now understanding the deleterious effect of consuming too much of the sweet stuff, yet a low-fat product can often contain increased amounts of added sugar making it palatable (and moreish), but turning this seemingly healthy low-fat product into something not so great.
Ideally, though, as said by Lindsay Moyer, Senior Nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “A healthy label should not be a marketing tool that helps marginally better processed food compete with truly healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.”
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Taillie, Lindsey Smith et al 2017, ‘No Fat, No Sugar, No Salt . . . No Problem? Prevalence of “Low-Content” Nutrient Claims and Their Associations with the Nutritional Profile of Food and Beverage Purchases in the United States’, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, [Epub ahead of print].
- Australian Government, ‘Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Schedule 4 – Nutrition, health and related claims’, Federal Register of Legislation, viewed 27 March 2017, <https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2016C00189>