Researchers from the Institute of Health Carlos III and the National Center of Epidemiology in Madrid looked at the advertising of 169 food and drink products during 420 hours of broadcasting over seven days and five television channels.
They found 53.3% of the products targeting children used nutrition claims in their advertising and 26.6% used health claims.
However, when they looked at the nutrient profile of the products, they found 62.2% of these claim-making products were unhealthy.
What claims what?
Cereal products had the highest percentage of claims but in absolute terms most of the claims were used on dairy products, which made up almost one third of the products advertised to children.
Almost half (49%) of the nutrition claims made across all the products were for vitamin and mineral content.
This was followed by claims for nutrients, ‘natural’ and low-fat at 38%, 24% and 18%, respectively.
Of the products making nutrition claims based on vitamin and mineral content, 80% were deemed energy-dense and nutrient-poor (EDNP) by the researchers.
A profile of nutrient profiles
The concept of nutrient profiles has been a source of constant contention since it was written into the 2006 nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR).
Disagreement on salt, fat and sugar boundaries of the profiles – which would dictate what products can carry claims – means the European Commission has long-since missed its legal deadline of 2009 to set them.
The profiles have been plagued by so much disagreement that in a plenary in April this year MEPs voted overwhelmingly to consider deletion of the concept from the NHCR regulation altogether under the EU’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) programme.
The Commission has now started the first phase of its investigation into whether the nutrient profiles are needed, which it hopes will settle the issue once and for all.
Findings of this first stage are expected to be published next year, and this will then be followed by another Commission report on possible regulatory resolutions.
Call for nutrient profiles
The researchers warned this was misleading the Spanish public.
“The habitual presence of nutrition and/or health claims in products directed at children, in tandem with the poor nutrient profile of these, largely EDNP, can be assumed to be misleading Spanish consumers, since the main reason reported by the latter for reading food labelling was to choose healthier products,” they wrote.
“Indeed, the presence of claims has been observed to lead children and parents alike to perceive these products as being more nutritional and healthier, show a greater willingness to buy them, and be induced to choose EDNP products.”
The researchers blamed this on the "regulatory vacuum" left by the EU's failure to create nutrient profiles.
They called for movement on the controversial profiles, to “prevent the potential pernicious effect of nutrition and health claims on children's eating habits”.
Work from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand or more recently that from the World Health Organisation (WHO) European office were cited as potential models.
They also highlighted consumer friendly front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems like the Keyhole scheme in Nordic countries and the contentious traffic-light system in UK as potential ways to mitigate this public health confusion.
“Compulsory nutrition information on nutrition labelling could go some way to mitigate the misleading nature of these claims, though the health 'halo' associated with products bearing claims might nonetheless inhibit consumers from consulting the nutrition information contained on the labelling.”
'Tis the season
They added that future work could look more closely at seasonal promotion of Christmas products or ice-cream in the summer, which their sample of January to April broadcasting did not consider.
Source: Gaceta Sanitaria
Vol. 30, Iss. 3, pp. 221–226, doi.org/10.1016/j.gaceta.2016.01.004
“Nutrition and health claims in products directed at children via television in Spain in 2012”
Authors: M. Á. Royo-Bordonada , M. J. Bosqued-Estefanía, J. Damián, L. López-Jurado and M. Ángeles Moya-Geromini