Food Labels

Reporter: Helen Wellings

We should be able to trust nutritional labels but now we know most tell fibs. Some tell whopping lies.The NSW Food Authority conducted a survey of 70 packaged food products, like bread, breakfast cereals, jam, canned fruit, processed meat and packaged meals - and uncovered amazing inaccuracies. 84% of labels gave the wrong amounts of at least one ingredient, even allowing for a 20% margin of error.

NSW Food Authority's Chief Scientist, Dr. Lisa Szabo says, "Consumers, I believe, do depend a lot on looking at food labels and what sort of ingredients are on there. If they are on a specific diet, it might be very important for them to know how much sodium I eat, how much potassium I am eating."She warns there are loopholes in the national food standards Code which allows manufacturers a lot of latitude in food labelling, which leads to inaccuracies."What manufacturers are doing is expressing the average nutritional values on the back of the pack. That is what they are asked to do."

Another shocking finding - foods that claim to have low fat and low sodium are even more likely than other foods to be wrong. And the survey reveals that trans fats, which are linked to heart disease, in one brand of chips are 13 times higher than stated. Many nutrients in there are difficult to analyse accurately and precisely, for example trans fatty acids are notoriously difficult to analyse accurately, and so what you can measure at one instance in a food the next time may not give the same measurement.

The NSW Centre for Public Health's, Dr. Vicki Flood, says better would be a broader approach, labels saying whether a product is high or low in certain ingredients. "There's a fair level of inaccuracy in the food labels now .... We should look at a system like the one in Europe in the UK. They have a sign-posting system where they have a traffic light guide and they show on the food product whether it is a green, orange or red for different nutrients to give the consumer information about that food," says Dr Flood.

Food names and pictures can also fib. You'd be surprised HOW MUCH fruit is actually in many popular fruit bars and treats, which are decorated with images of fruit and have fruit names. Nutritionist and weight loss expert, Matt O'Neil, says food companies are really cashing in on the positive healthy image of fruit."There is surprisingly little fruit in these products and I think if people knew, they would go wow I thought it had more," says Matt. "The problem is, a lot of these products look like they're choc full of fruit with the pictures and the claims on them but they contain a miniscule amount of fruit."

A strawberry milk for kids is an example. One brand claims to contain REAL FRUIT, real strawberries, but the fine print ingredients list declares it's made from skim and whole milk, sugar and real strawberry. Actually the strawberry is reconstituted strawberry juice, and it's a tiny 0.2% of the product.

"That's less than 0.6 mls of strawberries in the 300ml container. That's just a little drop of strawberry there. So if you read the front it says contains real fruit. You're hardly getting any fruit in here at all," says Matt. Some popular supermarket confectionaries boast natural fruit pulp with real fruit juice, giving the message you get a good quota of healthy fruit, but talking of 3 varieties in a brand, Matt reveals, "There's only 3% fruit in this one. 3% fruit here. 6% fruit here and I don't think it warrants a "made with real fruit pulp" claim. I don't think those should be allowed on lollies." A good excuse for sucking on a Chupa Chup is the advertised fruit pulp in it, but again, they have miniscule amounts of fruit. "So you think well if it's got fruit in it, it must be good for me. But when you actually read the ingredient list and add it up, in each Chupa Chup you're getting .39 grams of fruit. Now that means you'd have to suck your way through 380 of these Chupa Chups to get the same amount of fruit in just one orange - that's 380."

It's not illegal to have these miniscule amounts of fruit. The only rules are - fruit named or pictured on the pack must be declared on the ingredients list as a percentage - and the makers do that. But Matt says what shoppers see are the claims and pictures. He says, "When it's buried down at the bottom of the ingredient list and there are these lovely pics on the front I think alot of people don't bother to look for that."

Ingredients labelling is also not clear. This one states 42% fruit FILLING."But it's not 42% fruit. You've got fruit fillings ... There might be corn starch, humectants, gums and fillers and all those things add to that 42%," says Matt. Standing next to a pile of Kellogg's K-Time, Matt demonstrates, "One apple is equivalent to all this. 25 boxes or 150 bars -- that's 150 equals one apple." Responding, Kellogg's says K-Times are a good snack choice because they're grain-based and 97% fat free, with one tenth the fat and half the sugar of an average chocolate bar. Back to nutrition labels, the Federal regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand is set to do a full review next year, which hopefully will produce a more accurate system that we can trust.



* NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition.

* Food Standards Australia New Zealand