The findings come from a team of Canadian researchers who analysed the nutrient profiles of a wide range of food products with and without front-of-pack (FOP) symbols – finding that, in general, products being marketed with such symbols were no better than products without them.
“Although lower levels of either calories or one or more nutrients of public health concern were identified in products with FOP symbols in some product categories and subcategories, in general, the results of this study demonstrated that the calorie, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar content of products being marketed with FOP symbols are no better than products without FOP marketing, regardless of the FOP type,” said the team – led by Teri Emrich from the University of Toronto.
Writing in Appetite, the team noted that while front-of-pack labelling and health symbols are used on foods everywhere in the world, there is little in the way of minimum standards to ensure that products bearing such symbols are actually delivering healthier or more nutritious foods.
“The present study found that, while FOP symbols were being used as nutrition marketing on 17.8% of all products, these symbols were not being used to market products that were overall lower in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar than their counterparts without FOP symbols, and in some instances were higher in one or more of these nutrients,” wrote Emrich and her team.
“This suggests that such symbols are being applied more as a marketing feature in the interest of selling products than promoting healthier food choices.”
The team used a Canadian database containing information on more than 10,000 packaged foods to compare the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar in products with FOP symbols, and different FOP symbol types, to products without symbols.
They surveyed ten food categories and 60 subcategories – and in each the median calorie, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar content per reference amount of products with FOP symbols were compared to products without FOP symbols. Nutrient content differences were also compared using Wilcoxon rank-sum test - with differences greater than 25% deemed to be nutritionally relevant.
“Products with FOP symbols were not uniformly lower in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar per reference amount than products without these symbols in any food category and the majority of subcategories (59/60),” wrote Emrich and her colleagues.
Indeed, the team found that none of the different front-of-pack labelling symbols examined was used to market products with an ‘overall better nutritional profile’ than products without this type of marketing.
They concluded that FOP symbols “are being used to market foods that are no more nutritious than foods without this type of marketing.”
“If nutrition marketing influences consumer perceptions of product healthiness and nutrient content, and ultimately their product purchases, the results of this study suggest that minimum standards should be established regarding the content of nutrients of public health significance for products with FOP symbols,” they wrote.
Volume 84, Pages 148–153, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.017
“Front-of-pack symbols are not a reliable indicator of products with healthier nutrient profiles”
Authors: Teri E. Emrich, et al