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Regulator weighs into fat-free claims as labels fail taste test

Date

Mark Metherell

<em>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</em>

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

More than 100 food products, ranging from breakfast cereals to lollies, making ''fat-free'' claims, fail to provide acceptable levels of nutrition, the official food regulator has found.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand will today launch a national debate on the long-delayed measures to control nutrition and health claims on Australia's food.

The agency said when products making ''fat-free'' or ''percentage fat-free'' claims were assessed for their overall nutritional value in terms of protein, dietary and vegetable content, more than 100 would fail to make the grade.

The report said products claiming to be ''fat free'' that tended to mislead included breakfast cereals, which could be heavy in sugar and salt; and salad dressings, simmer sauces and processed meats claiming to be fat free or a percentage fat free but turned out to be salt laden and sugar rich.

The consultation process starting today is aimed at attracting industry, health and consumer input for a forum of state and federal food ministers in June that is expected to decide on new standards to regulate such claims on food labels.

The regulation of health claims was proposed a decade ago but has run into food industry resistance, leaving Australia behind many other Western countries on what health claims are allowed on food labels.

The issue follows the ministers' decision late last year - in the face of industry opposition - to reject an expert recommendation to introduce ''traffic-light'' labels to guide healthy food choices.

The code does not regulate the use of ''free'' claims concerning fat and other contents, except claims about gluten and lactose.

Ministers have been told concerns about the fat-free claims, particularly on foods high in sugar and energy that do not normally contain fat, such as confectionery, may clash with public health messages.

Present dietary guidelines, in addition to recommending a cutback in fat intake, also recommend eating less sugary and salty food. Officials say the central issue is to assess the extent to which consumers could be misled into thinking a ''fat-free'' product is automatically healthy to eat.

The agency found in its research that while taste and price appeared to be more important in driving purchases than fat-free claims, many consumers were interested in fat content.

Fat-free claims were likely to have the most influence at the time of the first purchase.

However, there appeared to be no research on whether fat-free claims caused consumers to buy foods of lower nutritional quality instead of more nutritious foods.

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15 comments

  • When are people going to wake up and realise that fat does not make you fat. There was no scientific evidence to back up this claim over 50 years ago. It is sugars/carbohydrates that make you fat. You need healthy fats in your diet. I avoid 'low-fat' foods like the plague. I also avoid sugar and processed carbohydrates. By doing this alone, I do not have to kill myself in the gym to lose weight. Now that I eat lots of protein and vegetables and I am lean and toned without all that extra effort. Do your research. Don't let food industries make your decisions for you. Become educated and make your own choices.

    Commenter
    Kitty
    Date and time
    February 17, 2012, 10:55AM
    • So true, I just had 2 months with little exercise due to a bad injury so I cut down carbs (about 25%) and cut out artificial sugar and anything processed. I kept eating full cream dairy 2 serves a day and food with natural fat in it and I lost 3 kgs down to 76kgs (178cm male) even though I couldn't do high intensity exercise. You can lose weight with minimal exercise if you eat right since your body burns calories just by keeping you alive

      Commenter
      Mick
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      February 17, 2012, 11:42AM
    • Me too. I have lost 15 kgs & 76cms in the last 6 months following a grain & sugar free low carb lifestyle & swimming for exercise.

      Low fat usually equals very high sugar an additives. No processed foods with more than 5 ingredients make it into my pantry.

      Google "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" & read the New York Times article by Gary Taubes

      Commenter
      Odille Esmonde-Morgan
      Location
      Terranora NSW
      Date and time
      February 17, 2012, 12:02PM
  • Low Fat = High Sugar

    Commenter
    Jezz
    Date and time
    February 17, 2012, 10:58AM
    • I totally agree that all food labels should clearly state the fat & sugar content. For example a leading brand of Marshmallows state they are 99% fat free on the packaging, however there is not mention that they are 68% sugar. There is 17grams of sugar in the recommended 25 grams serving (6 marshmallows) and the only other 'nutrient' is 1 gram of protein! This means 6 marshmallows have over 5 teaspoons of sugar! Would you put 5 teaspoons of sugar in your cup of tea?? I think not.
      Sugar is becoming the new nicotine and is over consumed by most people. If there was more education around clearer labelling on packaging and tighter regulations on advertising then maybe we would see a reduction in Australia's expanding waistlines – after all Australia's adult obesity rate is the fifth highest among OECD countries, behind the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Greece.

      Commenter
      Energised
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 17, 2012, 11:05AM
      • That you know the protein and sugar content suggests to me that the labelling is actually pretty good. Unless we go full nanny state then we cannot ask companies not to promote their foodstuffs - low GI being all the rage currently. The nutrition label does contain sufficient information to make a suitable choice - the onus must come back on to ourselves to learn to use the information provided.

        Commenter
        MikeB
        Date and time
        February 17, 2012, 11:57AM
      • Mike is right.

        I don't understand the problem - 'Fat Free' doesn't claim the product is low in salt or sugar. Products can be (and are) promoted as 'sugar free' and 'salt reduced'. We can look on the back of the packet for detailed nutritional information as well.

        All the information is there. Can't we work out these things themselves?

        Commenter
        James In Footscray
        Date and time
        February 17, 2012, 6:18PM
      • Exactly. It's not about labelling, it's about questioning, and educating ourselves. We are, and should remain so, responsible for our own actions. The last thing I want, and continue to fight against, is a nanny state.

        Commenter
        Kitty
        Date and time
        February 18, 2012, 3:33PM
    • People who think a 'fat-free' label equals 'healthy' without taking into consideration what other nutrients vs artificial additives and chemicals can be found in a product would have to be 'intelligence-free'.
      Some fats are dangerous (transfats, found in most processed food because it's a cheap fat). Other fats are essential (and they're called 'essential fats' because they are vital for our health). Too much fat, carbs, sugar and alcohol will make you not only fat but also seriously unwell.

      Commenter
      Anna Alvsdotter
      Location
      Manly
      Date and time
      February 17, 2012, 11:38AM
      • "would have to be 'intelligence-free'."

        That's a little harsh, Anna!

        Not everyone has had the opportunity to learn about proper health and nutrition like you and I have. I think that is one of the causes of the current obesity epidemic: we're seeing second and third generations of obesity due to a lack of education and understanding.

        I think instead of dismissing these people as 'stupid', perhaps we could aim for more nutritional information particularly amongst the lower socio-ecomonic sphere? Not sure how to go about achieving that, though....

        Commenter
        Donna Joy
        Date and time
        February 17, 2012, 12:18PM

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