Have you ever perused the food options on the shelves of the supermarket looking for the healthiest option, and then read the ingredients only to find it was loaded with sugar…or something that sounds like sugar but you just can’t be sure? A recent Australian study (Pulker et al., 2018) sought to understand the impact of nutrition marketing and health claims found on the packaging of ultra-processed foods (UPF). An UPF is an industrially processed food, which may include colours, flavours, sweeteners and processing aids, or undergoes processing for which there is no domestic equivalent i.e. we can’t recreate these foods in our own kitchen. They are also described as hyper-palatable and are commonly marketed at children. Examples include breakfast cereals, snacks, confectionary items and breakfast meal replacements.
To carry out the assessment the researchers looked at the packaging information of UPF from 5 different manufacturers. The ingredient lists were examined for the addition of sugar as well as nutrition and health related claims, and food marketing.
The results were alarming. Ninety-five percent (95%) of UPF contained added sugar. There were 34 different terms used to describe sugar (I can’t even come up with half that amount). Just over half of UPF were moderate health star rated or had nutrition claims…yes these were the same foods that had added sugar. Almost all used food marketing, with half of those reviewed using marketing techniques aimed at children. So despite many foods containing sugar and being less than health options they are being marketed as nutritional.
The researchers were concerned about the inappropriate or inaccurate statements (in some cases) particularly those aimed at children. They recommended that surveillance of UPF be increased with the aim of reducing deceptive marketing practices. Additional recommendations include clear identification of sugar, correct identification of nutritional quality (or lack of quality), and a raft of other suggestions to increase clarity around food choices with relation to UPF.
From my perspective I hope these changes come about. In the meantime when shopping in the middle aisles (instead of around the edges of the supermarkets where the fresh food is located), aim to choose minimally processed foods or those with less ingredients e.g. muesli or rolled oats instead of cereals that contain added sugar. Another approach I take is to choose healthy daily basics such as rolled oats for breakfast and then when I want to indulge in a sweet treat (chocolate peanut butter icecream anyone?), I really go for it but the choice is mine rather than being hidden under layers of marketing guff.
Reference: Pulker, C. E., Scott, J. A., & Pollard, C. M. (2018). Ultra-processed family foods in Australia: nutrition claims, health claims and marketing techniques. Public health nutrition, 21(1), 38-48.