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How to: Spot food labelling 'spin'

Posted by Laura: August 2012 

Pick up any food item in the supermarket and you're likely to find some kind of nutrition or health claim on the pack. What's worrying is that in Australia general health claims, such as ‘with calcium for strong bones' or ‘with probiotics to improve digestion', don't have to be independently checked to be included on a product label. Nutrient content claims are claims about the vitamins and minerals in a product (and also things like protein, sodium and gluten) and include claims such as ‘a good source of iron' or ‘high in fibre'. Provided these claims are true (which generally means a product must contain at least 25% of the recommended daily intake of the nutrient to be a ‘good source') they can be spruiked on any packaged food, even though the food may also be high in fat and sugar and unhealthy overall.

To make matters worse, we're still in limbo and don't have a uniform front of pack labelling scheme to help us understand whether a product is good for us or not. For example, in the UK a number of packaged foods have traffic light labels to help consumers understand the nutritional quality at a glance. In Australia, we are left to cut through the marketing spin, to find a way to calculate what a serve is and puzzle over how a product contributes to our recommend daily intakes.

Over-consumption of unhealthy products is a key driver of the growing obesity rates in Australia. So, it's more important than ever that we know how to decipher whether products are healthy based on the label.

Here are some tips to help:

  • Don't be fooled by sporting endorsements. If Coca Cola and McDonald's can be major Olympics 2012 sponsors, then anything goes. Seeing your sporting hero's face on the front of a cereal pack doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you.
  • Watch out for health claims. Don't just assume that claims like ‘good source of calcium for strong bones' or ‘high in fibre to aid digestion' mean the product is healthy overall.
  • Ticks. It's common that products have ticks next to health claims to try and indicate that the claim is endorsed or valid, but this isn't the case. In reality a tick doesn't mean much.
  • Be wary of positive nutrition claims such as ‘20% of your daily wholegrain intake'. This may be the case but what are they not telling you? It could also be high in fat, salt or sugar.
  • Check what the first ingredient is on the label. Ingredients are listed in order, so if the first thing listed is ‘sugar' then you're probably looking at a Mars bar, or something similar.

Keep in mind that the food industry is marketing to you; that Government hasn't got regulations around food product packaging wrapped-up yet; and you should be spin-wary when walking down the supermarket aisles.

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