Cereal manufacturers “deceiving shoppers by using poor nutrition labeling,” lobby group says

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08 Aug 2017 --- Action on Sugar, a UK sugar and health expert group, is calling for color-coded “traffic light” front of pack (FOP) nutrition labeling to be introduced across all food and drink products. The group says many perceived “healthy” cereal brands have failed to include the UK Department of Health endorsed color-coded labeling, adding that some of these brands offer products containing high levels of sugar which would equate to a red label.

The group surveyed 25 breakfast cereal manufacturers and found that while Bear, Jordans, Kellogg’s and Nestle do use FOP labeling, they do not use Department of Health’s recommended color-coding, making it very difficult for consumers to interpret the information and make informed decisions. 

According to Action on Sugar, a further six brands, including Eat Natural, Lizi's, Nature's Path, Paleo Foods Co., Rude Health and Dorset Cereals, contain no front of pack nutrition labeling and some products contain high levels of sugar. NutritionInsight has reached out to these six brands for comment.

The extent of what the group alleges is a “deception” has been shown by the FoodSwitch UK app, which provides color-coded nutrition information for packaged food and drinks, even if there is no color coding on the pack itself, so that users can see whether a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in total fat, saturates, sugars and salt. 

Click to Enlarge

The app also provides a list of similar, healthier alternatives and includes a new filter, SugarSwitch, which enables users to search specifically for healthier alternatives that are lower in sugar.

“The product information within FoodSwitch is current and based on our considered best available sources of evidence and information at the time of collection. As foods are continually reformulated and new products launched, the in-built crowdsourcing function enables us to capture the very latest product information and provides a more comprehensive database,” Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist at Action on Sugar, tells NutritionInsight.

According to Action on Sugar, breakfast cereal shoppers could save themselves a whopping 45 teaspoons of sugar per month (182g) if they had access to consistent FOP labeling allowing them to make informed decisions and switch to a lower-sugar cereal.

Some granola cereals have no FOP labeling at all, the group says.

“Whilst it is encouraging that some branded companies use the government recommended color-coded FOP labeling including: Alpen, Honey Monster, Mornflake, Quaker Oats, Scott's and Weetabix, there are at least three different label variations used by manufacturers on their products for consumers to understand and navigate – leading to further confusion and making it difficult to compare products. In comparison, all of the nine top supermarkets have color-coded front of pack labeling on their own-label breakfast cereals across their economy, standard and premium ranges,” the group reports in a press release.

The majority of the sugars in these products are derived from “free sugars,” despite the Reference Intake referring to “total sugars.” Free sugars include sugars that are added to food, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates, not sugars in milk products and whole fruit and vegetables.

Click to Enlarge“Distinguishing between ‘free sugars’ (those added by the manufacturer plus the sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juices) and those which are naturally occurring (from milk-based products and whole fruit and vegetables) is very important, as it is the ‘free’ sugars that we need to cut down on,” Hashem explains. 

“Currently, labels only give the figure for total sugars from all sources; they don’t tell you how much of this has been added. This should be the next step after companies adopt FOP color-coded labeling, but in the meantime, there are things you can look out for. Foods that contain lots of fruit or milk will be healthier than those containing free sugars, even if the amount of total sugars is the same. You can also tell if a food or drink contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients lists and looking for terms like sugar, glucose-syrup, invert sugar syrup, honey and golden syrup,” Hashem says.

The color-coded FOP labeling scheme, set up in 2013 by the UK Department of Health and supported by various national health charities (including Action on Sugar), has been supported by all the major supermarkets and some manufacturers. However, even some of those choose to use it selectively on some, but not all, products. All companies are being urged to adopt a consistent use of color-coded FOP labeling, applied across all of their food and drink products, and to also include the figure for free sugars, which is vital for consumers to make more informed, healthier choices to help reduce consumption.

“Considering that front of pack traffic light color-coded labeling has been recommended for years and adopted by many companies, it is frustrating that big and perceived healthier brands continue to refuse to use this form of helpful labeling,” says Hashem. “Consistent labels allow shoppers, at a glance, to see the huge variation in salt and sugar levels in breakfast cereals. Many of these cereals, often aimed at children, would receive a red traffic light label for being high in sugars. Companies need to reduce the sugar and salt levels now by working towards the sugar targets by 2020 and salt targets by the end of 2017 – and proudly display this on their front of pack nutrition labels.”

“If companies are serious about helping their customers make healthier choices with lower salt, sugar and saturated fat, then, like the supermarkets and the more responsible manufacturers, they must consistently use front of pack color-coded nutrition labeling,” says Sarah Alderton, nutritionist for FoodSwitch UK. “Until then, we have created FoodSwitch and SugarSwitch to show shoppers what’s in their food and help them find healthier similar alternatives with less sugar, so that these companies can’t hide behind poor labeling.”

In response, Penny Knapman, Consumer Experience Advisor at Dorset Cereals, tells NutritionInsight: “We believe most people who eat our muesli understand that dried fruits, nuts and seeds contain some naturally occurring sugars and fats, but are also an excellent source of fiber and whole grain, as well as essential vitamins and minerals.”

“As we continue to work on reducing added sugar from our recipes, we will continue to ensure the nutritional content of our products is communicated as clearly as possible, while recognizing that an overly simplistic representation of the nutritional value of some more natural foods can potentially be quite misleading,” Knapman concludes.

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