Food labels don’t lie, but they can mislead you into thinking a product is healthy when it’s full of junk. And food manufacturers will happily trick you into making unhealthy choices for your children, says Michael Donlevy. But they can’t do that if you’re armed with the facts…
Giving your children the best start in life involves feeding them the right foods, so you need to know precisely what you’re putting in their mouths at mealtimes. Yet a third of British children are overweight or obese, according to the NHS, and we are being bamboozled by the industry we rely on to feed us.
‘Things have improved thanks to the work being done by the European Food Safety Authority, but food manufacturers still exploit loopholes in the regulations for marketing purposes,’ says nutritionist Sarah Schenker. ‘They’re always trying to make things look better than they really are, especially when it comes to the number of calories.’
Food labels can be confusing, but they can also be downright misleading. This is especially true when it comes to products aimed squarely at kids, to the point where shadow health secretary Andy Burnham last week called for a crackdown on high-sugar cereals.
‘If we fail to act we are storing up huge problems for the country and the NHS in the long term,’ he says. He proposes a 30 per cent cap on sugar in cereals, as well as restrictions on fat and salt content. ‘I don’t think any parent would be comfortable with their child eating something that’s 40 per cent sugar,’ he says.
The government claims its Responsibility Deal, which encourages the food industry to reduce salt, sugar and fat, has got results, but Burnham has a point. Kellogg’s Frosties are 37 per cent sugar, while Coco Pops contain 35 per cent. Both use cartoon images to appeal to children.
Cereals aren’t the only problem. Heinz Baked Beans claim ‘Just ¼’ of a 415g tin counts towards your five recommended daily portions of fruit and veg, yet the tin also contains 3g of salt – two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance for children aged five to 10. ‘The five-a-day labels are a worry,’ says Schenker. ‘There are healthier ways of eating fruit and veg, such as eating fruit and veg!’
And while food labels don’t actually lie, they can be selective with the truth. For example, Dairylea cheese slices claim to be a ‘good source of calcium’. Which may be so, but they also happen to be 18 per cent fat, and there are plenty of good sources of calcium that won’t put added strain on your children’s school uniforms.
It also doesn’t help when retailers get them wrong, as in the case this week where Tesco and other supermarkets removed beef burgers from the shelves when scientists discovered they contained up to 29 per cent horse meat – leading to the inevitable claims that as well as being fatty they were too high in Shergar.
‘It’s illegal to mislead consumers,’ says Sue Davies, chief policy advisor for food at Which?. ‘But many companies aren’t complying with the spirit of the law. Then it becomes a judgement call as to whether Trading Standards will take on a case.’
Food labels are confusing. They bombard us with health claims, ingredients and numbers. Yet legally, they only have to include four facts: energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat content. They’re not required to say if any of these are, in themselves, good or bad. But they’re packaged by clever marketing people who use carefully chosen words and colours to make us think we’re buying things that are better for us than they really are.
For example, a ‘low-fat’ food must contain three per cent fat or less. However, a ‘light’ product only needs to contain 30 per cent less fat or sugar or 25 per cent less salt than the original. Pringles Rights misled snack addicts by proudly boasting they were ‘33 per cent less fat’, but they were still a whopping 25 per cent fat – 22 per cent over the ‘low-fat’ limit. Anyone boggled by numbers who bought them assuming that they must be harmless was mistaken. Crisps are high-fat foods, and no amount of positive spin can change that. Appropriately, they were renamed Pringles Reduced Fat.
There is some good news: the traffic light labelling system. It quite simply highlights ingredients in green, amber or red to illustrate their nutritional values. It isn’t mandatory, and the government can’t legislate for it – those bureaucrats in Brussels have to agree to it, which despite EU-wide calls from health watchdogs and campaign groups they have failed to do. But in the UK, after years of excuses, all the major retailers finally agreed in late 2012 to adopt the scheme for their own-label products. Unfortunately, the major food manufacturers are refusing to follow suit.
Once you’ve picked up something from the supermarket shelf, you may make the mistake of turning the packaging over. ‘There’s nutritional info all over the back, and some of the information is redundant or meaningless,’ says Schenker. ‘You have to show the nutritional values per 100g, but most people want to see them per portion. And very few people know how much fat is good or bad. What does it mean? What does it look like?’
That doesn’t mean food manufacturers can get away with misleading us. The Consumers Association is quick to jump on dodgy claims, and you can bring to light any you find by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Likewise, you can report cases to Trading Standards or dodgy ads to the Advertising Standards Authority. But what else can be done, on a personal level, given that standing outside your local supermarket with a placard and loudhailer is probably going to be a waste of time?
The simple answer is: know your stuff. ‘Read labels closely and look at the list of ingredients, says Davis. ‘Look at sugar, fat and calories and make sure you’re not being conned.’ You can use the Which? Traffic Light Label Shopping Card to help.
We should be able to trust the food industry – for all its economic power and political influence – not to lie to us or peddle produce that isn’t as healthy as they’d like us to believe. ‘Retailers say they’re promoting healthy choices but they’re still the ones making unhealthy processed food,’ says Schenker. ‘That’s why we need honest labelling. We need a box to say, “This pizza contains 800 calories”. Then it’s personal choice whether you give it to your children.’
Which? concludes, ‘It’s encouraging there has been some action to prevent marketing unhealthy foods to children, such as regulating TV ads, but more needs to be done. Unhealthy foods such as sugary cereals are still targeted at children through appealing packaging, on top of social media promotions and sports sponsorships. We want the Responsibility Deal to include strict definitions for which foods are healthy enough to be promoted to children.’
But there’s an even easier way: stick to healthy, fresh food, beware cereals, make as much of your own sauces as possible from fresh ingredients, and approach any label or slogan that trumpets health benefits with extreme caution. ‘It’s about balance, and planning ahead,’ says Schenker. ‘Try to give your children a mix of fish, white meat, red meat and vegetarian meals. Challenge their taste buds, even if sometimes half the meal ends up in the bin.’ One day, they will thank you for it.
How to read a food label
This simple guide shows you the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of each key nutrient for children aged five to 10
Energy 1,800 kcals per day max
Of which sugars 85g
Of which saturates 20g