The association has called the marketing strategy ‘misleading’ and urged consumers not to trust packaging claims that a product is a healthy choice.
The study analysed 24 foods, including snacks and cereals marketed as reduced calorie or low fat, and found that two-thirds still contained medium to high levels of saturated fat, according to the British Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) traffic light labelling system. The researchers used the British system as no such scheme is currently in place in Ireland.
The study, published in the association’s magazine, Consumer Choice said: “While the healthy option is marginally better when compared with equivalent foods, it tends to be marketed to consumers based on its healthier status, leading consumers to expect low fat. Such a high proportion of medium and high levels of fat in these foods is misleading.”
Traffic light labelling
The FSA judges a product to be high in fat if it contains over five per cent fat and high in sugar with over 12.5 per cent, meriting a red traffic light under the labelling system.
The system splits the levels of fat, salt and sugar by colour – green for low, amber for medium and red for high.
According to this approach, 67 per cent of the so-called healthy options contained medium or high sugar, compared to 63 per cent of the regular options. As for salt content, 83 per cent of the healthy options were found to have a medium or high salt content, as opposed to 75 per cent of standard versions.
The researchers wrote: “Consumer Choice suspects that increasing the amount of sugar and salt is an attempt to make up for the reduction in fat and the effect this has on the food's taste.”
Indeed, the food industry recognises the challenge it faces in reducing fat, salt and sugar while also retaining consumer acceptability, and the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has underlined the efforts made by manufacturers to reformulate their products.
Speaking at the recent reformulation symposium in London, the FDF’s Barbara Gallani said: “We believe that what FSA is trying to achieve is very challenging, especially considering the need to change recipes and processes to lower levels of hydrogenated vegetable oils, salt and saturated fat without compromising taste and texture.”
Even so, she added that the FDF would “continue to work with FSA on saturated fat and energy intake reduction.”
The study also noted that the products marketed as light tended to be more expensive on average than their standard counterparts, but portion sizes were generally smaller.
Products analysed in the study included cereal bars, crisps, biscuits, breakfast cereals and ready meals.
The Consumers’ Association of Ireland is an independent, voluntary body which seeks to represent the interests of consumers.