US “Low-Content” Nutritional Claims are Misleading for Consumers

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15 Mar 2017 --- US consumers may be having a tough time choosing healthy food products due to a lack of consistency in the nutritional claims found on food products, according to a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

The report says that the lack of consistency about the meaning of nutritional claims impacts people’s ability to make healthy choices.

Companies have been quick to adopt packaging that makes “low-content” nutrient claims such as “low-fat” or “low-sodium.” Claims such as “low sugar” and “low salt” also fill supermarket isles, with products that make a variety of claims related to their perceived health benefits.

Such nutrition claims are on the rise. According to Innova Market Insights, launches of products claiming a low sugar content have risen 0.5% in the drinks category from 2015 to 2016, while the launch of “low sodium” products rose 2% in the bread category during the same time period.

However, this new report argues that, because there is no uniformity to what these statements mean, consumers are often left confused and ill-informed.

The new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics claims to have found that simply making a low-content claim on the label was not a reliable indicator of a product’s actual nutritional quality and that these claims may give consumers a false sense of confidence about the healthfulness of their food.

Investigators wanted to examine what effects these low-content claims had on purchasing habits, as well as what relationship they had to the actual nutritional content of foods.

After looking at data that included over 80 million food and beverage purchases from over 40,000 households, they found that 13% of food and 35% of beverage purchases had a low-content claim, and that “low-fat” was the most common claim, followed by “low-calorie,” “low-sugar,” and “low-sodium.”

While the data revealed that products with some sort of claim had lower mean energy, total sugar, total fat, and sodium densities, they did not always represent the best nutritional value. The study suggests that because labels only need to make claims relative to other similar foods and not a standard definition of what “low” means, these claims do not offer consumers any real information or give a good indication of the general healthiness of the food.

“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,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, researcher assistant professor, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“This is likely due in part to “low” or “reduced” claims being relative within brands or specific food categories.”

Because there is, for example, no agreement about what constitutes a low-sugar cookie, researchers say consumers need to be cautious.

A cookie that is marked “low-sugar” may contain less sugar than the “regular” version, but that low-sugar claim doesn’t guarantee it contains less sugar than other cookies.

“In other words,” remarked 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.”

The issue with nutritional labeling is also a raging issue in the UK. Susan Short from the Association of UK Dietitians (BDA), told NutritionInsight, “There is regulated guidance for the descriptive “low” term for sugar, fat, salt etc however what can be misleading for consumers is that a claim of “low sugar” doesn’t guarantee the product will also be low in fat or salt or vice versa and doesn’t fully explain the nutritional profile of the total product.”

“Many consumers, in a bid to eat healthier, rely on the low sugar and sodium claims without fully understanding how to interpret the full nutritional label, therefore, focusing on just one nutrient may not always be the best way to determine if products are healthier alternatives or not.”

Short agrees that labels should be clear and easy to understand for the consumer: “In recent years, some products may now also contain information on the front of packaging in a traffic light format.”

“This can help consumers at a glance to compare products and look at nutrients for health. Consumers should take care though as these refer to portion size that may be smaller than the portion they eat.”

Dr. Taillie concluded, “A key question for future research will be to examine how these claims affect consumer choice, as well as how claims interact with other common strategies, like sales or price promotions, to influence purchasing behavior and ultimately, dietary quality.”

by Hannah Gardiner 

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