Variations in nutrient density suggested that the food or beverage did not necessarily offer better overall nutritional profiles or better profiles for the nutrient, as set out by the claim.
The researchers went as far as to say that in some cases, these claims could mislead consumers about the overall nutritional quality of the food.
“As consumers try to navigate an ever-increasing number of food and beverage choices, being able to parse what these claims mean will become even more critical,” the study stated.
“These findings show how the lack of consistency about what these statements mean can lead content claims to be used to sell generally unhealthy foods as a healthier alternative.”
Much work carried out into reducing obesity levels has gone on improving how foods are marketed to consumers.
Low-content claims (eg, low-fat, reduced sodium, cholesterol-free) are a common approach as the food industry responds to growing consumer health-consciousness and concern with weight maintenance.
A good example is the rise in products containing low-calorie sweeteners, which consumers have looked to in response to concerns about the health effects linked to excess sugar intake.
The effectiveness of food and beverage claims extends to consumer responsiveness. A 2010 experimental study of the UK’s traffic-light food labelling system demonstrated a wide variation by socioeconomic status (SES) in consumers’ attitudes and responses.
Headed up by Dr Lindsey Smith Taillie, researcher assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the study examined nutrient claims on more than 80 million food and beverage purchases between 2008 and 2012.
Statistical analysis was used to examine if the proportion of purchases with a low/no-content claim changed over time or differed by race/ethnicity or household socioeconomic status.
Results found 13% of food and 35% of beverage purchases had a low-content claim with frequency of claims among purchases unchanged over time.
Low-fat claims were most common for both foods and beverages (10% and 19%, respectively), followed by low-calorie (3% and 9%), low-sugar (2% and 8%), and low-sodium (2% for both) claims.
Products with a low-content claim had lower mean energy, total sugar, total fat, and sodium densities, when compared to purchases with no claim.
“A low-/no-nutrient claim means different things for different foods,” said Dr Taillie. “This could potentially lead to confusion if consumers focus on seeking out products with specific nutrient claims or use a claim to justify the purchase of less-healthy foods.”
“In fact, these results suggest (but are not conclusive) that in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar, or fat actually may be more likely to have low-/no-content claims."
Labelling in Europe
Nutritional food labelling is a subject of much contention within the food sector.
Only last September the use of colour-coded labels were targeted by a group of MEPs, who urged the European Commission to assess the UK’s traffic light labelling scheme.
Europe has been unable to come to a consensus regarding nutrient labelling for more than a decade now.
One bone of contention rests with setting certain nutrient thresholds for products that make health claims.
Other arguments stem from whether certain foods like high-fat cheese or high-fructose orange juice may be excused from such regulation.
In April last year, MEPs voted against their introduction, claiming insurmountable problems in implementation and the distorting effect it would have on markets.