Nutrition profiles of food with health claims only ‘marginally better,' study shows

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Studies looking at prepacked food in the EU estimate that 7–14% of products are labelled with health claims or symbols.©iStock/dbvirago
Studies looking at prepacked food in the EU estimate that 7–14% of products are labelled with health claims or symbols.©iStock/dbvirago

Related tags: Health claims, Nutrition, European union

Foods carrying health claims have only slightly better nutrition profiles than products without, according to an Oxford University study.

Publishing its findings in Nature ​the study found foods carrying health claims had, on average, lower levels, per 100 g, of energy (29.3 kcal), protein (1.2g), total sugar (3.1g), saturated fat (2.4g), and sodium (842mg) but higher levels of fibre (0.8g).

A comparable model was seen in foods with accompanying nutrition claims. When the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion (FSANZ NPSC), which was designed to regulate health claims, was used, 43% of foods passed.

Foods carrying health claims were more likely to pass than foods carrying nutrition claims or foods that did not carry either type of claim.

The findings shine light on the value of both claims as well as how effective these labels are in communicating the benefits of maintaining a healthy diet.

By and large, health-related claims do achieve their intended effect. Consumers are more able to identify​ healthier foods with the addition of useful information on the product’s label but effects on health were found to be minimal.

However, studies have shown that health-related claims might offer very little assistance or even hamper consumers in their decision-making. This can include overlooking​ other, more valuable sources of information.

Diet has become the leading risk factor for non-communicable disease in Europe​, with 90% of deaths in the European Union (EU) due to non-communicable diseases​.

Study details

Researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford and The Slovenian Nutrition Institute (NUTRIS), used a cross-sectional survey of pre-packaged foods available in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and the United Kingdom in 2013.

In total, 2034 foods were randomly sampled from three food store types (a supermarket, a neighbourhood store and a discounter).

Nutritional information was taken from nutrient declarations present on food labels and assessed through a number of analysis methods coupled with the application of the FSANZ NPSC nutrient profile model.

“The results presented in this paper may suggest that concerns over the poor nutritional composition of foods carrying health-related claims in Europe may be unfounded given that foods carrying health-related claims have, on average, a better nutritional composition than foods that do not carry such claims,”​ the study said.

“However, 30% of foods carrying health claims and 39% of foods carrying nutrition claims do not pass the FSANZ NPSC.”

Previous research

health claim reject no
Foods with health claims were, on average, marginally healthier than foods without these claims. ©iStock

Within the EU, little research has been carried out that evaluates if foods with health-related claims have a superior nutritional make-up than foods without these claims.

Recent experiments involving health and nutrition claims in the United Kingdom discovered that foods with health claims were, on average, marginally healthier than foods without these claims.

“We hope that the results presented in this paper will help the EC assess the need for nutrient profile models in the regulation of health and nutrition claims,”​ the authors said.

“Although the nutritional quality of foods carrying claims has been explored in this paper, it is still unclear what the public health impact of these relatively modest differences is.”

Additional studies that look at prepacked food in EU countries estimate that 7–14% of products are labelled with health claims or symbols.

Source: Nature/European Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1038/ejcn.2016.114

“The nutritional quality of foods carrying health-related claims in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.”

Authors: A Kaur et al.

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