A consumer watchdog is calling for better monitoring of potentially misleading food labels and packaging that tricks customers into thinking the products they buy are better for them than they really are.
Consumer NZ said spokeswoman Jessica Wilson said her organisation routinely found supermarket-stocked products that were making claims that risked breaching food labelling and fair trading laws.
“Manufacturers will often remove these claims when we ask them for evidence to substantiate them. However, we’d like to see more proactive monitoring by regulators and better resourcing of enforcement of labelling laws.”
Advertising or marketing material on food packages must comply with the Fair Trading Act and the Food Act. This means companies can’t mislead consumers or create a false impression about the goods they sell.
READ MORE: Buyer beware: ‘Natural’ bodycare products skimp on natural ingredients
But it was still a minefield for consumers, Wilson said.
Some companies would make a point of highlighting a healthy ingredient that was only a small component of the overall product, she said.
“If a company claims a product contains blueberries, the label has to tell you what percentage is blueberries. This also applies if the label has a picture of blueberries.
“But the rule hasn’t stopped food-marketers highlighting the blueberry or other content when there’s extremely little of it. To find out what’s actually in a product, you have to look at the ingredients list – usually on the back of the product in small print.”
Consumer NZ research pointed to Kellogg’s Just Right with Goji Berries, Cranberries & Sultanas, promoted as a “delicious blend of flakes and fruit”. Goji berries feature prominently on the box but the ingredients list shows they make up just 1.5 per cent of the cereal.
This is within the rules because the percentage has been disclosed.
“There’s only two goji berries featured in the bowl of Just Right depicted on front of pack, which is a realistic representation of the amount you’d find in a serve.
“What’s actually prominent are the sultanas and grains. All ingredients are also clearly labelled on side of pack with their percentages, so consumers can make an informed decision about the foods that they choose to buy,” a Kellogg spokesperson said.
Jenny Young, a marketing expert at the University of Auckland, said regulations had been tightened over recent years so that companies making specific health claims had to be able to back them up.
But she said there were a lot of vague claims that flew under the radar. She said she had looked at one packet of crackers that said “no funny business”.
“What does that mean?”
She said it had become common for manufacturers to advertise their products as being ‘free from’ various things, as a response to shoppers seeking less-processed products.
“They quite often have a list – we don’t have these things. It makes people feel more confident about purchasing the product.”
Wilson said products with “gluten-free” and “dairy-free” claims had become more common. “If you can’t eat wheat or dairy, these products may offer you more choice. But the marketing of them as a ‘healthy’ option has also lured other consumers.”
She said, gluten-free foods could be high in fat, sodium and sugar and low in fibre.
She said the refined flours used in many gluten-free products could sometimes lack the nutrients and minerals found in whole grains.
“Unless you need to avoid certain foods, buying ‘free-from’ products won’t necessary confer any health benefit. These products are also likely to be more expensive.”
Low-fat claims were often made on products that were high in sugar and salt, Young said.
Watties 99 per cent Fat Free Creamed Rice is made with low-fat milk. But the single serve tin contains over 6 teaspoons of sugar.
Wilson said promoting products as “natural” or made without “artificial” ingredients was another strategy.
If products are claiming to be “lower sugar” options they must have at least 25 per cent less sugar than comparable options.
Young said even brand names could be misleading if they inferred characteristics about a product, such as that it was “natural” or “healthy”. But she said that was hard to regulate.
The Commerce Commission said claims made about the health or nutritional benefits of a product must not mislead consumers and should be able to be substantiated.
“Credence claims – particularly food and country-of-origin claims – are a priority for the commission. The commission has a number of current investigations into such claims but cannot disclose any further details at this time.”
A spokesman said the commission relied on consumer complaints to identify problems.