Junk food disguised as a nutritious option
People like to believe they are making healthy choices when it comes to their diet, so when food packaging displays the words 'Low-fat', 'Fat-free', or 'No sugar added', it is assumed to be a safe and nutritional choice. Unfortunately, it is not enough to only look at one element of a snack option, as many of these low-fat products make up for lost flavour by doubling or tripling the amount of sugar. Research published by the Australia's NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity shows that more than 50 percent of t.v. ads that focus on positive nutritional claims are actually promoting junk food. So label readers beware and check out the complete nutritional information on the package, as well as the ingredients which are listed by weight.
The unhealthy foods most advertised for nutritional value were high-sugar, low-fibre breakfast cereals, battered meat, high-fat frozen meals, cakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and snacks such as chips, popcorn and sugar-coated nuts, the researchers found.
Misleading claims that exaggerate a food's nutritional qualities, such as lollies and yoghurts advertised as low-fat while ignoring their high sugar content, were found to be common. "If you say something is fat free, full stop, and do not talk about the high content of sugar, people are only getting half the story," said Lesley King, the centre's executive officer and a senior lecturer in public health at Sydney University.
Nutrition claims were made in more than one in five TV food ads and high-sugar, low-fibre breakfast cereals particularly stood out because their fibre content was advertised as a quality.
The main nutritional claims advertised for cakes and biscuits were their reduced fat content. Low sugar, reduced fat and reduced energy content were the most common nutritional claims for chocolate and confectionery.
The centre's findings follow a Herald investigation that revealed an internet multi-level marketing operation based in Reno, Nevada, has been recruiting Australian distributors for Xocai, advertised as "healthy chocolate" with claims that it is low in sugar and contains beneficial fibre from acai berries.
"You can see why people might promote a healthy chocolate or low-fat chocolate. It is the ideal consumer product, if only it existed. It's really based on a fairly interesting understanding of consumer behaviour," Ms King said.
Marketers should be required to disclose a food's full contents so that nutritional claims matched product labels, she said. Now they can take advantage of consumer desires and quick purchasing decisions.
Be careful when reading claims on food packaging – they can be misleading. ‘Diet’, ‘light’ or ‘lower fat’ foods can have less fat than a similar product but they can still be high in calories, fat and sugar.
For example, low fat sausages, spreads and crisps are still high in fat compared to other foods. Reduced fat biscuits can still be high in sugar and calories even though the fat content has been reduced. And remember that foods claiming to be 80% fat-free still have a 20% fat content – that’s still quite high!