Failing to make the grade... Australia's food regulator says many products shouldn't be labelled fat-free.

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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