The anti-sugar campaigner has called for ‘honest labelling’ of fruit snacks after its research revealed that ‘so-called healthy’ fruit snacks for children can contain the equivalent of up to five teaspoons of sugar per serving.
The group is calling for a ban on the use of claims such as ‘one of your five a day’, ‘naturally occurring sugars’ or ‘made from real fruit’, which it claims are misleading.
Fruit snacks - is the health halo slipping?
Action on Sugar complained that processed dried fruit products are marketed as ‘healthy snacks’ due to their high fruit content. However, the sugars in these products are categorised by Public Health England as ‘free sugars’ as they contain purees, concentrates, juices and extruded fruit or added sugar by coating or flavouring dried fruit.
According Action on Sugar, all of these can contribute to obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay.
The public health campaigner investigated 56 coated, flavoured, processed or extruded fruit-based products sold across leading grocery retailers in the UK. It discovered 57% of products have more free sugars than Haribo Starmix confectionery per 100g – with one product (Kiddylicious Apple Fruit Wriggles 12g) made of 70% sugars.
All products surveyed would receive a red traffic light label for high sugars, it said, while 65% had the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugars or more in just one single portion – the same as eating an iced doughnut.
Action on Sugar also wants these types of snack to be reclassified as confectionery owing to the high sugar content.
“The message to food manufacturers is quite simple: Stop tricking parents into thinking your products are healthy. The only information about nutrition that should be on children’s foods is the nutrition information panel and the colour-coded (‘traffic light’) front of pack label," Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director of Action on Sugar, Queen Mary University of London said.
"Manufacturers are hiding behind health halos of messages such as ‘made with real fruit’ and ‘no added sugars’ to obscure the fact that processed fruit-based snacks are as unhealthy as sweets and sugary drinks. Parents are struggling to feed their children healthy food already without manufacturers making the process even more confusing. It’s time to be honest about what’s in your products and remove these claims.”
Sheena Bhageerutty, Assistant Nutritionist at Action on Sugar, added: “These products line the shelves of the ‘baby and child’ aisle in supermarkets with attractive packaging designed to appeal to new parents. However, the nutritional information is hidden on the back of the packaging making it unclear to tell at a glance if they are a good choice or not. Our research has uncovered the truth that, based on their high sugars content, these fruit snacks would be better placed in the confectionery aisle.”
Industry backs front-of-pack rules
However, many of these types of product do not make health claims or are aimed at kids.
Asda's Yogurt Coated Cranberries, for instance, had 4.8 teaspoons of sugar. But there are no claims on the packaging that the snack is 'healthy' or for children.
Action on Sugar also complained that the current labelling gives an ‘allowance’ of 90g of sugars per person which is based on an adult’s intake and not a child’s. However, the UK front-of-pack traffic light labelling is based on adult reference intakes, in line with EU regulations. There is no reference intake for children as part of these. Should food manufacturers provide FOP information, they must comply with the regulation.
Tesco added that its Apple & Sultana Bars, found by the Action on Sugar analysis to contain nearly five teaspoons of free sugar (nearly the recommended daily maximum allowance for a four-to-six year-old in one bar), clearly display the sugar content to consumers.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “The health of our customers is very important to us. Our own-brand apple and sultana bars are produced solely from dried fruit with no additives, preservatives or added sugars.
“Our packaging is designed to clearly display the sugar content as part of our ongoing work to help our customers take simple steps to leading healthier lives.”
The Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Rycroft agreed that current FOP rules allow parents to identify a product’s sugar content.
“As identified by the survey, products made of pureed or extruded fruit will contain sugar as sugar naturally occurs in fruit. The products will all have an ingredients list, so a parent can identify if the product is just fruit or contains other ingredients. It will also have a nutrition declaration which will give the total sugar content, regardless of whether this comes from fruit or is added separately,” he said.
“All nutrition labelling information, including the UK government’s ‘traffic light’ label, can only use adult reference intakes. There are no children’s reference intakes defined by law. When products are clearly aimed at younger children, companies have to decide whether it is appropriate to include an adult-based front of pack scheme.”
The British Nutrition Foundation, an independent nutrition body, agreed with Action on Sugar’s contention that ‘no added sugar’ claims on fruit snacks can be misleading.
It told us: “It has been suggested that sugars such as those in juices and smoothies can be consumed more easily in much greater quantities than sugars present within structures that have not been broken down; in other words we can drink a glass of juice or smoothie much quicker than the time it would take us to eat the number of whole fruits and vegetables it took to make it, and this could lead to overconsumption of calories and sugars. Juices and whole fruit and vegetables also differ in the amount of fibre they contain - most of the fibre is lost when the fruit or vegetable is juiced.”
However, it also pointed out that fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies do contain useful micronutrients like vitamin C and 150ml (the maximum daily recommended amount) counts as one of your five a day.