'Light' or 'fat-free': the fine print of food

January 29, 2021 6 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation

After the Christmas excesses, it is common to implement some type of plan to lose the kilos that we have gained.

Light , sugar-free or fat- free foods are some of the most sought after in the supermarket. But do we know what we are buying?

Officially, these claims are called ” nutrition claims .” After many years in a legal vacuum, the European Commission (EC) regulated them in 2006. Until then, anyone could attribute (almost) miraculous properties to their products.

Regulation No. 1924/2006 of the EC includes the more than 30 nutritional declarations that can be made of food.

In them not only the presence or absence of energy contribution stands out. Also different types of fat, fiber, protein, sugar, vitamins or minerals. Among the most popular are ” high in fiber “, ” no added sugar “, ” with calcium ” or ” low in salt “.

What kinds of foods carry nutrition claims?

It is the packaged foods that carry nutritional claims. These are common, for example, in breakfast cereals, cookies, dairy or vegetable drinks and margarines.

Except in some supermarket chain, you can hardly see nutritional claims on fresh fruits, vegetables or fish. Does that mean they don’t contain important nutrients?

Absolutely. Natural foods are the basis of our diet and many statements can be made from them. Let’s look at some examples.

For example, what could we say in the case of lettuce or orange? They do not have added sugars, have low energy value and do not contain saturated fat or salt. They are rich in fiber, contain folic acid and vitamin C.

Another case, lentils. What statements could we make about them? They are rich in protein and fiber, have no added sugars, are low in fat and in saturated fat.

In addition, they are rich in vitamin B1 , folic acid, B6 , iron , phosphorus and zinc and contain vitamin B2 , magnesium , potassium and selenium.

What are nutrition claims used for?

The statements are used for commercial purposes. Their goal is to increase the sales of the products that carry them. The European Commission itself recognizes that they give a positive image to food.

Numerous research papers have studied its effect on consumers’ purchase choice. In fact, they are more likely to choose products that carry claims . However, these can be misleading about the actual content of the product .

Some authors have gone even further and say that the statements give a “healthy halo” to food. In this way, consumers assume that the product that carries them is healthier than it really is.

So, aren’t foods with nutrition claims healthy?

Not necessarily. Its use only provides information about one of the nutrients in the food. The nutrient that the manufacturer is interested in highlighting.

To determine whether or not it is healthy, it would be necessary to take into account all the nutrients it contains, in addition to its energy intake.

Recent studies in Brazil , Canada and New Zealand show that a large number of foods with nutrition claims are unhealthy. Similar results are to be expected in Spain.

To prevent non-recommended foods from making claims, the EC undertook to establish additional nutritional requirements. The institution was working on it in 2008; however, it has not yet managed to materialize any legislation in this regard.

The result is that we find butter or light margarine with 40% fat on the market. Light or zero soft drinks with acesulfame K, cyclamate, aspartame or stevia. These are sweeteners and therefore not recommended by the World Health Organization .

Cookies rich in fiber with more than 400 kcal / 100g are also common. Chocolates with no added sugar are real calorie bombs, with lots of saturated fat.

Nutritional statements on products for sale in Spain

The conditions of use of the nutrition claims authorized by the EC are clearly specified. Despite being mandatory, the truth is that legislation is often violated.

The BADALI team of the Miguel Hernández University published a study of the prevalence of nutritional claims in 3 197 foods for sale in Spain. We also analyze compliance with Regulation No. 1924/2006 that regulates them.

We were surprised by the large number of nutritional claims we found. About a third of the foods analyzed had them. The average was more than three statements per food.

Those who made them the most, nuts and seeds, legumes and non-alcoholic beverages. The most mentioned nutrients were fats and vitamins, followed by minerals and fiber.

Of all the nutritional claims analyzed, only half complied with the legislation (49% of 3 839). Nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, sweets and chocolates were the foods with the most misstatements.

Conclusion: “nutrition claims” does not mean “healthy foods”

As we have seen in this article, nutritional claims are often made from unhealthy foods. Furthermore, about half do not comply with the legislation.

So what is the practical use of consumer statements? This is a question legislators should ask themselves.

Our recommendation is to reduce the consumption of those foods with added sugar, fat or salt. Whether or not they carry statements. The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article .

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