LONDON, Mar 17: No-fat or no-sugar labels on food packaging do not guarantee the nutritional quality of the food‚ a new US study on more than 80 million food and beverage purchases has found.
Reduced and low-fat or low-sugar products may even be unhealthier for consumers.
“In many cases‚ foods containing low-sugar‚ low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims‚” explained lead investigator Professor Lindsey Smith Taillie from the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.
“In some cases‚ products that tend to be high in calories‚ sodium‚ sugar or fat may be more likely to have low-or no-content claims.”
For example‚ the low-fat version of chocolate milk may have a lower fat content but may be higher in sugar compared to plain milk.
Irene Labuschagne‚ a dietician from the Nutrition Information Centre at Stellenbosch University‚ said that many processed low-fat or fat-free foods have just as much energy as the full-fat versions of the same foods — or even more kilojoules.
She said: “These foods may contain added flour‚ salt‚ starch‚ or sugar to improve flavour and texture after fat is removed‚ for example‚ a low-fat salad dressing is still high in energy and should be eaten in moderation.”
The American data on food and drinks purchases from more than 40‚000 households from 2008 to 2012 was published in the latest issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Food labelling can be misleading and confusing to consumers wanting to make healthy choices‚ the researchers showed.
For example‚ a person may opt for a “reduced-fat cookie” — which needs only be labeled “reduced” compared to the original food of the same product to get this label — rather than a healthier cookie without a “reduced fat” label.
Taillie said: “Essentially‚ reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient.”
For example‚ a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos‚ but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving.
Taillie and her colleagues found that 13% of food and roughly a third of beverage purchases had a low-content claim‚ including no‚ free‚ low or reduced.
Low-fat was the most common claim‚ followed by low-calorie‚ low-sugar and low-sodium.
High-income and middle-income level households were more likely to purchase food and beverages with low-content claims.
Labuschagne recommended that consumers read the food labels on packages to find out precisely how much energy (kilojoules) a serving contains.
She said: “Check the serving size too‚ it may be less than you are used to eating. Check the food labels on canned‚ dried and frozen items. Look for items that are high in vitamins‚ minerals and fibre. Also check for items which are low in added sugars‚ saturated fat‚ and sodium.”