The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has responded to new health claims published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, which states that product packaging for a large proportion of foods marketed to children in the UK are ‘confusing’ and could be contributing to rising rates of childhood obesity.

Researchers featured in the report are urging that stricter regulations are needed for food labelling and product content to lessen health risks.

Child-focused marketing techniques, using cartoon characters, toys, games and promotions (cards and vouchers), are claimed to be an advertising staple. However, the use of health and nutrition claims for particular foodstuffs is a more recent trend, note the researchers.

Energy, fat, sugar, and salt content of foods marketed to children above the age of 1, and widely available in various food retail outlets in the UK, came under scrutiny.

The researchers focused on products with child-focused imagery and health and nutrition claims on the product packaging, including terms such as ‘one of 5 a day’.

In all, 332 different products, including breakfast cereals, fruit snacks, fruit-based drinks, dairy products, such as yogurts, and ready meals were assessed, using the broadcast regulator’s tool (Ofcom NPM) to identify so-called ‘healthy’ food.

This uses a scoring system, made up of seven elements: energy; total sugars; saturated fat; salt; fruit/vegetables/nuts; fibre and protein, available from the product labelling information, to classify the nutritional quality of foods.

The calculations allege that a large proportion of the products, including those commonly perceived as ‘healthy’ (41%), were classified as ‘less healthy,’ by the tool scoring system.

The report highlights that cereal bars assessed had the highest energy and saturated fat content, while cereals had the highest salt content. Fruit snacks had the highest sugar content, averaging 48 g/100 g, but still made the ‘5-a day’ claim.

FDF response

Kate Halliwell, FDF head of UK Diet and Health Policy said: “FDF believes that clearly labelling packaged foods can help people eat more fruit and vegetables by making it easier for them to know which products will help them reach their 5-a-day.

Kate Halliwell, FDF head of UK Diet and Health Policy.

“The 5-a-day campaign aims to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables – a nutritional target that, as a nation, we are not achieving.

“The Government advice is that different sources of fruit and vegetables all count, including fresh, tinned, frozen, dried, juice and puree. The nutritional benefits are the same if they eaten on their own or as part of a composite product like a cereal bar.

“As the authors themselves highlight, a large proportion of products labelling 5-a-day are also classed as healthy under advertising rules.

“The fact that many are high in sugar is no surprise given fruit contains naturally occurring sugars. The weight of dried fruit and purees required to count as one of your 5-a-day is based on being equivalent to 80g of the fresh product.

“Products containing dried fruit can therefore legitimately label 5-a-day if they have 30g of dried fruit. Companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food, and provide ingredients lists and nutrition information per 100 grams on pack.

“The vast majority of companies go beyond this and voluntarily provide simple nutrition information on the front of pack usually based on what a recommended portion would contain,” she concluded.