If you’re confused by food labels, you’re not alone. It’s made harder because marketers use a variety of tricks to make foods seem healthier and more appealing than their competitors, particularly when it comes to products aimed at children.
Next time you’re shopping for food, look out for these seven common labelling tricks.
The colour of food packaging can influence our perceptions of how healthy a food is.
A recent study found consumers’ perceptions of two identical chocolate bars were influenced by the colour of the nutrition label; despite the identical calorie information, people perceived the one with the green label to be healthier.
Ticks and seals
Another tool of savvy food marketers is the use of “ticks” and “seals” that we subconsciously process as indicating that the product has met some form of certification criteria.
A recent study found that nutrition seals on unhealthy food products increased perceptions of healthiness among restrained eaters. And a study with parents of toddlers found that 20 per cent of parents identified the presence of a quality seal as one of the reasons for their purchase of toddler formula rather than cow’s milk.
Food packaging often contains words that imply the food contains certain ingredients, or has been prepared in a way, that makes it healthier (or at least better than similar foods).
But many of the words – such as “healthy” or “natural” – have no legal or formal meaning. While the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code regulates the use of specific health and nutrient content claims, it doesn’t regulate or define these loose terms.
“Weasel claims” a terms used to negate the claims that follow them. This allows manufacturers to avoid allegations of breaching advertising or labelling regulations, while being such a commonly used word that it is overlooked by the consumer.
For example, Activia “can” help to reduce digestive discomfort, but did you read the fine print? It “can” help if you eat it twice a day and “… as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle”.
Less bad stuff than …
Unfinished claims tell us the product is better than something – but not better than what. In food labelling, we really have to hunt for the “what”.
Fountain’s Smart Tomato Sauce contains 114mg of salt per serving, while the brand’s regular tomato sauce contains 186mg (more than several other brands).
The Heart Foundation defines low-salt foods as those with less than 120mg per 100g; Fountain’s Smart tomato sauce has 410mg per 100ml. It does, however, have less sugar than many of its competitors.
So if you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake it may be a good choice, but if you’re trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for one of the low-salt varieties and read the label very carefully (“reduced” rarely actually means “low”).
Smiths' Thinly Cut potato chips contain 75 per cent less fat than “chips cooked in 100 per cent Palmolein Oil”. But they don’t contain less fat than Original Thins, Kettle, or most other brands on the market.
It’s also worth taking a close look at the recommended serving size: in both cases the nutrition information is based on a 27g serving, but Smiths' “single serve” pack is 45g (15.7g fat, which is one-fifth of an average adult’s recommended daily intake).
A common strategy is to list a claim that is, in itself, completely true … but to list it in a way that suggests that this product is unique or unusual (when it’s really no different to most foods in that category).
“All natural” and “no artificial colours and flavours” are appealing features for parents looking for snacks for their children. But most standard cheeses (including many packaged products such as cheese slices) also contain no artificial colours of flavours.
This is not to suggest that Bega Stringers are a bad product or that you shouldn’t buy them – just that you may want to think about the cost per serve compared to other cheeses that are equally healthy.
Like most lolly snakes, Starburst snakes are “99% fat free”. The old adage of “salt-sugar-fat” holds here; products that are low (or absent) in one are typically very high in another. In the case of lollies, it’s sugar.
As with the potato chips above, serving size is important. Those of us who can’t resist more than one snake might be surprised to realise that if we ate half the bag, we would have consumed two-thirds of our daily sugar intake (although we can’t blame the pack labelling for that!).
“No added …”
Berri Super Juice proudly, and truthfully, claims it “contains no added sugar”. You may conclude from this that the sugar content is low, but a closer look at the nutrition information label may surprise you – a 200ml serve of this super juice contains 25.8g of sugar (29 per cent of your recommended daily allowance).
While contentious, some have even suggested that there is a link between fruit juice and both obesity and metabolic disease, particularly for children. A better (and cheaper) way of obtaining the fruit polyphenols is to eat fruit.
Healthy brand names
Healthy sounding words aren’t only used as “claims”, but are often used as brand names. This first struck me when I was looking for a snack at my local gym and noticed a brand of snacks called “Healthy Cookies” on display; they had more sugar, more fat and less fibre than all of the others on sale.
Brand names are often seen as a key descriptor of the nature of the product. Research has found that people rate food as healthy or unhealthy based on pre-existing perceptions of the healthiness of a product category or descriptor, particularly among those who are watching their diet, and may thus select the unhealthier option based on its name or product category.
If, for example, you’re watching your weight, you may be attracted to the Go Natural Gluten Free Fruit & Nut Delight bar, assuming that it will be a healthier choice than a candy bar. But you might be surprised to note that it contains 932 kJ (11 per cent of your RDI) and a whopping 13.6g of fat (10 per cent of your RDI).
This article first appeared on The Conversation. Sandra Jones is a professor and Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at University of Wollongong.