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Claims on children's food mislead, says study

By Sarah Hills , 15-Jul-2008

The majority of food items aimed specifically at children have poor nutritional content and yet many of these products continue to make positive healthy claims on the label, a new study claims.

Eighty nine percent of regular foods were found to have high levels of sugar, fat or sodium, according to the study of 367 products which specifically excluded confectionery, soft drinks and bakery items. Of the foods classed as having poor nutritional quality (PNQ), 62 per cent made positive claims about their nutritional value on the front of the packet. However the findings of the study, which is published in the July issue of the UK-based journal Obesity Reviews, are said to highlight the problem of accurately separating figures for the quantity of natural sugar and the quantity of added sugars in manufactured products. Professor Charlene Elliott from the University of Calgary, Canada, whose research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said: "Assessing the levels of sugar in the selected food products was a methodological challenge, because milk sugars and fruit sugars occur naturally in foods. "The Nutrition Facts label only displays total sugars and the quantity of added sugars is not always provided by the manufacturer. "This means that the percentage of foods categorized as poorly nutritious due to high levels of sugar is higher than it would have been if information on naturally occurring sugars had been available." The author pointed out that this issue was not unique to the study as the problem of separating figures for natural and added has been encountered by other researchers and acknowledged by the US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). But Elliott said that despite this "the findings still give us cause for concern", as certain nutritional claims may add to the confusion and can mislead people into thinking the whole product is nutritious. She added that having a healthy diet was especially important given the current rates of childhood obesity. Excess body weight affects up to 35 per cent of children across Canada, the United States and Europe. It is also linked to a range of health problems including type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Nutritional standards Only 11 per cent of the products Elliott and her colleagues evaluated provided good nutritional value in line with the criteria laid down by CSPI. The CSPI nutritional standards state that healthy food should not derive more than 35 per cent of its calories from fat (excluding nuts and seed and nut butters) and should have no more than 35 per cent added sugar by weight. They also provide guidance on sodium levels, ranging from 230mg per portion for snacks through to 770mg per portion for pre-prepared meals. CSPI states that its standards represent a compromise approach, allowing for the marketing of products that may not be nutritionally ideal, but that provide some positive nutritional benefits that could help children meet the US Government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The 367 products were bought from a national supermarket chain stocking 50,000 food and non-food items in December 2005. They included food products and packaging that were presented in such a way that children were the clear target audience. Products with high sugar levels accounted for 70 per cent of the goods with PNQ. Despite this, 68 per cent included some sort of nutritional claim on the package, such as a source of whole grains, source of iron or low in fat. Cereals and fruit snacks were particularly likely to make nutritional claims and have high levels of sugar. Professor Elliott believes that policy attention needs to be directed towards the nutritional claims made by products aimed at children and the images they use to sell the products. Label information Last December, the Hartman Group published Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective, which revealed that American consumers are increasingly reading product labels as part of a general lifestyle move towards health. However, despite this obvious growing interest to understand label information, consumers often find the task confusing. Efforts are rife in the industry to present nutritional highlights to customers. Last month, food company ConAgra has decided to launch its own nutrition labeling system in a bid to make it easier for consumers to get useful advice about the food they eat. The company believes that the MyPyramid system run by the US Department of Agriculture is difficult to follow. Source: Obesity Reviews. 9.43, pp 368-377 (July 2008). "Assessing 'fun foods': nutritional content and analysis of supermarket foods targeted at children." Author: C Elliott

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