Over a quarter of drinks, cereal bars and breakfast cereals aren’t as healthy as they seem

New research from Cancer Council NSW has revealed that 28% of drinks, cereal bars and breakfast cereals with claims on their packaging about nutrition content or supposed health benefits fail nutrition criteria.

Cancer Council NSW’s Nutrition Unit Manager, Clare Hughes says, “Under food labelling laws, only healthier foods can include marketing claims about specific health benefits (known as health claims) on their packaging, yet any food or drink can include claims about nutrient content (known as nutrition content claims), even unhealthy foods.

“Food companies use health and nutrition content claims on labels to market products based on their supposed health or nutritional benefit. These claims can create a ‘health halo’, making products appear healthier than they really are.

“Our study of more than 1,700 drinks, breakfast cereals and cereal bars available in NSW supermarkets found over 7,000 claims; with 76% of products analysed displaying claims like ‘98% fat free’ ‘source of protein & fibre’ or ‘keep you fuelled up’ on their packaging.”

The study also highlighted a significant increase in the number of products carrying both types of claims since Cancer Council’s previous study in 2011, before current food labelling laws were introduced.

The number of products carrying health claims that did not meet the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criteria, developed to ensure only healthy foods could carry marketing claims about health benefits, more than doubled from 57 to 131 products.

“We found some interesting health claims that are little more than marketing hype. It would be difficult to scientifically justify claims such as ‘you’ll feel great on the inside and activated to start your day’, ‘a delicious way to help you keep on top of your game’, ‘keep your stomach smiling’ and ‘excites the brain, and in old age awakes young love again’.

“Food companies are getting creative in how they spruik the supposed health benefits of their products,” Ms Hughes continues.

“When we see claims such as ‘cholesterol free’ and ‘good source of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin E, iron’ we might assume they are healthier choices, yet our research found that many products with these nutrition content claims did not meet criteria to be classified as healthy.”

Current regulations don’t require products carrying nutrition content claims to pass the government’s nutrition criteria, and Ms Hughes says it’s not surprising that food companies are increasingly using nutrition claims to promote their less healthy foods.

In light of the findings, Cancer Council NSW wants to see all claims on foods regulated using the criteria.

“In recent years the spotlight has been on voluntary Health Star Rating to promote heathier food choices, yet the food industry’s use of nutrition and health claims has grown with little scrutiny to the impact they are having on Australian’s food choices and overall health.

“To protect consumers from the influence of claims on unhealthy food products, the Food Standards should ensure only healthier foods are eligible to carry any claims about nutrition content or health benefit; There also needs to be better control on marketing claims that are not scientifically supported. Ultimately this is about creating an environment where it’s easy for people to make healthy choices,” Ms Hughes concludes.

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