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Health Claims on Packaged Food: Sell First, Prove Later?

Diets, General Nutrition, Healthy Eating, Food Industry
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 “Helps lower cholesterol”, “Supports your natural immune defenses”, “Excellent source of dietary fiber”. These are just some of the claims that you can find on a variety of products in any supermarket isle.  Are these claims to be trusted?  

A 2007 study that surveyed food advertisements in Australian magazines found that approximately 30% of all food ads contained some type of health claim.1 What do these ‘claims’ really mean?  Very few are quantifiable in any concrete way as there is no standard definition set forth by any type of governing body at this time. There has been legislation proposed over 10 years ago by FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand), and recently vetoed by the food industry, that is attempting to help regulate some of these claims.

The proposal would require that health claims on packaged foods be checked for accuracy by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand before they could be sold. The proposal would regulate both nutrition claims such as “source of calcium” and “low fat” and also claims that relate to food and health ie. “rich in calcium for strong bones”.2 The goal of this proposal is to reduce the number of misleading claims, but also to increase the number of permitted food claims, as long as they are backed up by science.

But, the food industry has vetoed FSANZ proposal, calling it “unworkable” and saying they would prefer to self-regulate their health claims instead. They want to be able to make claims and market any product based on their own research, then if there is an issue with the claim in the future, the authorities would be able to step in to verify their research.3,4 Many health advocates claim this is backwards thinking by the food industry because it allows the companies to use the health claim to market the product before any real proof is available, which could lead to companies making any type of claim they want.

This regulation of the food industry is particularly important for consumers because there have been several public cases in the recent years where the food industry has taken a little too much liberty with food claims. Recently, Fonterra, a large dairy producer, was required by the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority (NZ ASA) to make changes to their website after receiving complaints from the public about misleading health claims.  The main issue with the Fonterra claims was the use of words like “need” and “essential” in marketing their product.  Many consumers felt these claims were not only inaccurate, but also misleading, as dairy is not a part of many healthy diets such as the vegan diet.5 Another extreme case happed with Nutella (the creamy, chocolate spread) that was being marketed in the United States as a “healthy” breakfast option, leaving out the fact that one serving contains 200 calories and 21g of sugar. Nutella was sued by a consumer due to these claims and were forced to pay out $3.05 million!6

So what can you to prevent from being misled? First, ignore the claims on the front of the package. The information you need is on the food label.  Look at the serving size because most packages contain several servings, even if it looks like it should be just one serving. Speak to a nutritionist or dietitian to figure out what you should be looking for based on your personalised health needs. Or minimize packaged foods and focus on fresh, whole foods that don’t come with a food label (fruits & vegetables). Overall, don’t take the labels at face value, dig a little deeper to find the real nutritional value of the product, don’t just believe the marketing statement placed on the package to entice you.



1.     http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=hbspapers

2.     http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/nutritionhealthandrelatedclaims/

3.     http://www.theage.com.au/national/grocers-propose-sell-first-prove-health-claims-on-food-later-policy-20120708-21pq6.html

4.     http://www.theage.com.au/national/food-health-claims-may-be-left-to-selfregulation-20120708-21pt5.html

5.     http://www.ausfoodnews.com.au/2012/07/05/fonterra-forced-to-change-%E2%80%98milked%E2%80%99-health-claims.html

6.     http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/2012/04/nutella-after-suit-drops-health-claims/


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Health Claims on Packaged Food: Sell First, Prove Later?