Seven Sneaky Food Labelling Tricks To Watch Out For

Food manufacturers regularly use deceptive and confusing descriptions such as "fat free" and "100% natural". Here are seven -- complete with examples from Australian supermarkets -- to be aware of the next time you go shopping.

Shopping picture from Shutterstock

If you're confused by food labels, you're not alone. But don't hold your breath for an at-a-glance food labelling system that tells you how much salt, fat and sugar each product contains. Australia's proposed "health star rating" labelling scheme was put on hold in February, following pressure from the food industry. And it's unclear whether the scheme will go ahead.

Marketers use a variety of tricks to make foods seem healthier and more appealing than their competitors, particularly when it comes to products aimed at children. One of the most powerful advertising tools a food manufacturer has is the packaging, as it's what we look at immediately before deciding which food to purchase.

Next time you're shopping for food, look out for these seven common labelling tricks:

1. Colour

The colour of food packaging can influence our perceptions of how healthy a food is.

A recent study found consumers' perceptions of two identical chocolate bars were influenced by the colour of the nutrition label; despite the identical calorie information, people perceived the one with the green label to be healthier.

2. Ticks and seals

Another tool of savvy food marketers is the use of "ticks" and "seals" that we subconsciously process as indicating that the product has met some form of certification criteria.

A recent study found that nutrition seals on unhealthy food products increased perceptions of healthiness among restrained eaters. And a study with parents of toddlers found 20 per cent of parents identified the presence of a quality seal as one of the reasons for their purchase of toddler formula rather than cow's milk.

3. Weasel words

Food packaging often contains words that imply the food contains certain ingredients, or has been prepared in a way, that makes it healthier (or at least better than similar foods).

But many of the words – such as "healthy" or "natural" – have no legal or formal meaning. While the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code regulates the use of specific health and nutrient content claims, it doesn't regulate or define these loose terms.

"Weasel claims" describe modifiers that negate the claims that follow them. This allows manufacturers to avoid allegations of breaching advertising or labelling regulations, while being such a commonly used word that it is overlooked by the consumer.

For example, Activia "can" help to reduce digestive discomfort -- but did you read the fine print? It "can" help if you eat it twice a day and "… as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle".

Similarly, Berri Super Juice contains antioxidants which "help" fight free radicals (but so does whole fruit, which also contains more fibre).

4. Less bad stuff than . . .

Unfinished claims tell us the product is better than something – but not better than what. In food labelling, we really have to hunt for the "what".

Fountain's Smart Tomato Sauce still contains 114mg of salt per serving, while the brand's regular tomato sauce contains 186mg (more than several other brands).

The Heart Foundation defines low-salt foods as those with less than 120mg per 100g; Fountain's Smart tomato sauce has 410mg per 100ml. It does, however, have less sugar than many of its competitors.

So, if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake it may be a good choice, but if you are trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for one of the low-salt varieties and read the label very carefully (reduced is rarely synonymous with low).

Smiths' Thinly Cut potato chips contain 75 per cent less fat than "chips cooked in 100 per cent Palmolein Oil". But they don't contain less fat than Original Thins, Kettle, or most other brands on the market.

It's also worth taking a close look at the recommended serving size – in both cases the nutrition information is based on a 27g serving, but Smiths' "single serve" pack is 45g (15.7g fat; one-fifth of an average adult's recommended daily intake, or RDI).

5. Irrelevant claims

A common strategy is to list a claim that is, in itself, completely true -- but to list it in a way that suggests that this product is unique or unusual (when in reality it is no different to most foods in that category).

"All natural" and "no artificial colours and flavours" are appealing features for parents looking for snacks for their children. But most standard cheeses (including many packaged products such as cheese slices) also contain no artificial colours of flavours.

This is not to suggest that Bega Stringers are a bad product or that you shouldn't buy them -- just that you may want to think about the cost per serve compared to other cheeses that are equally healthy.

Like most lolly snakes, Starburst snakes are "99% fat free". The old adage of "salt-sugar-fat" holds here; products that are low (or absent) in one are typically very high in another. In the case of lollies, it's sugar.

As with the potato chips above, serving size is important. Those of us who can't resist more than one snake might be surprised to realise that if we ate half the bag, we would have consumed two-thirds of our daily sugar intake (although we can't blame the pack labelling for that!).

Sun-Rice Naturally Low GI White Rice illustrates this use of technically correct claims. Let's start with "cholesterol free" – this is totally true, but all rice is cholesterol free.

The pack also states in very large, bright blue letters that it is "Low GI". In much smaller letters that almost disappear against the colour of the package is the word "naturally". This use of different colours to attract, or not attract, attention is a common marketing technique.

The product is indeed low GI, at 54 it is just below the cut-off of less than 55. But the "naturally" refers to the fact that what makes it low GI is the use of basmati rice rather than another variety, and other brands' basmati rice would have a similar GI.

6. No added . . .

Berri Super Juice proudly, and truthfully, claims it "contains no added sugar". You may conclude from this that the sugar content is low, but a closer look at the nutrition information label may surprise you -- a 200ml serve of this super juice contains 25.8g of sugar (29 per cent of your recommended daily allowance).

While contentious, some have even suggested that there is a link between fruit juice and both obesity and metabolic disease, particularly for children. A better (and cheaper) way of obtaining the fruit polyphenols is to eat fruit.

7. Healthy brand names

Healthy sounding words are not only used as "claims" but are often used as brand names. This first struck me when I was looking for a snack at my local gym and noticed the "Healthy Cookies" on display; they had more sugar, more fat and less fibre than all of the others on sale (Healthy Cookies was the brand name).

Brand names are often seen as a key descriptor of the nature of the product. Research has found that people rate food as healthy or unhealthy based on pre-existing perceptions of the healthiness of a product category or descriptor, particularly among those who are watching their diet, and may thus select the unhealthier option based on its name or product category.

If, for example, you're watching your weight, you may be attracted to the Go Natural Gluten Free Fruit & Nut Delight bar, assuming that it will be a healthier choice than a candy bar. But you might be surprised to note that it contains 932 kJ (11.0 per cent of your RDI) and a whopping 13.6g of fat (10 per cent of your RDI).

A 53g Mars bar contains slightly more calories (1020kJ) but a lot less fat (9.1g), although the Go Natural bar could argue for "healthier" fat given the 40 per cent nut content.

So, can we really distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods by looking at the wrappers?

The healthiest wrappers are made by nature, from the simple ones that can be eaten after washing (like apples and carrots) to those that need some disposal (like a banana or a fresh corn cob).

If you are buying your food wrapped in plastic or paper, it's a little more complex. We need to see past the colours, pictures and cleverly-crafted claims and take a careful look at the ingredients and nutrition panel.The Conversation

Sandra Jones is Professor and Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at University of Wollongong. She is an ARC Future Fellow and receives funding from the Australian Research Council for her position and other research projects. She also receives funding from the Cancer Council Victoria, Cancer Institute NSW and FARE.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    Lucky we have Traffic Light Food labelling - which is supported by good evidence - so we can use that... wait, no we don't. That was replaced by stars because the food industry didn't like traffic light labelling. Oh, no we don't, because it's all nanny-state-ish to label foods. Of course, it isn't like there could be flagrant conflicts of interest, except when there is.

    It seems the political parties (ALP and now LNP) find the taste of industry lobby group complains unpalatable.

    (Sandra: I imagine as a researcher this perpetual pandering to industry must be incredibly disheartening).

      YES! The food industry and the alcohol industry

    I like the serving sizes sham recently exposed on The Checkout. E.g. In a 600ml bottle of coke, 1 serving size is 600ml. In a 2L bottle of coke, 1 serving size is 250ml. Fantastic labelling systems we have here. The problem is that most of the labelling systems are voluntry lables created by organsizations or groups set up by the industries. In reality, making them a waste of printers ink.

    Last edited 12/04/14 10:55 am

      that example makes sense though - a 600ml bottle is meant for one person whereas from a 1.5l bottle you would pour it into a 250 ml glass

        So if I said nutritionally you could have one serve of coke without you knowing the package size, how much is it? Is it a 250ml in a glass, 210ml can, 290 can, 330 ml bottle, 375ml bottle 450ml bottle or 600ml bottle ( sizes I have seen coke in). All of these are labeled "1serve" and is used to indicate the nutritional value per serve. It was also pointed out chocolates, packaged fruit and chips and virtually all other packaged foods have the same kind of labelling. So a serving size of exactly the same product is not consistent. It varies depending in the pack size it comes in. Don't forget this info appears on the nutritional label and it renders the term "1 serve" pointless. The term should be eliminated. Most products do have a standard "per 100g/ml" so what is the point of printing "per serve" if it varies? Simply its a deceptive description used by the industry. Especially given Coles may have done a deal and have bigger packaging than Woolworths for example. There is no constancy with labelling which is what the article is about meaning the industry gets away with what ever claims they like.

        Last edited 14/04/14 2:44 pm

    People actually read the labels?

    Damn, son.
    If something looks or smells tasty, I'll buy/eat it.
    The rest is irrelevant.

    On a related note, the thing that really shits me is the way Woolies use dodgy pricing on their products. Huge tags proclaiming the price of an item on the shelf as 'reduced' with tiny print that explains it's only that price with an everyday rewards card. I'd love to know how many people have gotten to the checkout and been gouged because they didn't realise what the real price is.

      And you'd like to blame woolies for that one when they've provided you a label there to read but you choose to ignore and move on? Jeez seriously whats wrong with people?

        Yep this is dodgy! It would be a lot less deceptive if the prices were listed the other way round, as in the real price in bold with the discounted price below that.
        But then what would I care.... this is only one of the reasons I never shop at Woolies.

          You're lucky. At my local woolworths, we don't have the big Everday Rewards banner at the top of the ticket, it's just plain orange with the non-EDRC price in a smaller font.

          Its a marketing tactic, sure, and some may see it as deceptive, but seriously, the price without the rewards card is listed on that banner. More so, if its a big orange banner like the one sticking out, its all the more reason you should be paying attention to the details. Lets act like responsible adults that can read. Use your eyes, you have two of them.

            All good points, except you missed the key message of my post....
            I do not shop at Woolies.
            I seriously do consider myself to be a responsible adult, and if I might say a reasonably intelligent one. Last time I looked, I do indeed have two eyes. However I choose to use those faculties on things that make a difference in my life and the lives of others. Shopping is a mundane task that should be quick and simple. I just want to know what something costs. That requires a dollar sign and a few digits. I choose not to read long and deceptive price tags. I choose not to join "Loyalty" programs that pretend to benefit me when really they are for collecting data about my spending habits. I choose not to be reliant on petrol discounts that lock me into a duopoly. Therefore, I choose not to shop at Woolies (or Coles).
            I shop at the local family owned convenience supermarket. Their prices are cheaper for the basics of life, and everything else is on a par with the larger chains. Their fruit and vegetables are fresher. Plus, they are open 24/7.

        It's not a problem for me as I look closely. But the labels are not really that distinctive, the 'discount' price is huge and from memory no, they don't have a picture of the rewards card on them, just small text that reads 'with everyday rewards card, regular price $x.xx'. My concern is for harried mothers, people with poor eyesight etc. the signs should really be the other way around with the regular price highlighted.

          I was actually fooled by the everyday rewards card price when I shopped at Woolworths the other day, however, when I got to the self-serve and found out it wasn't the right price, I pressed for assistance as I was confused, and they just gave me a barcode to scan to get me my 2 buck discount.

          Apparently the everyday rewards price is designated by a gold price or something.

          that would be why the tags for everyday rewards card specials are bright orange. normal discount tags at woolies are not orange. (i believe they're yellow)

      Those huge tags also have a picture of their rewards card on them, if I recall. At the very least those labels are a different colour from other discount labels. More insidious in my opinion are the large tags announcing a "cheap" price that is exactly the same as the usual price, but again these labels are different from the ones that are actual discounts.

    My favourite weasel word that turns up all over food advertising is "goodness". It's so meaningless and ambiguous.. Try Crumley Fibre Gibs! With all the goodness of 3 and a half slices of toast! Vacuum-sealed to keep the goodness in! Full of nature's natural healthy goodness!

      Why not try the Crumley Fibre Gibs challenge! Eat Fibre Gibs every day for just 16 weeks, and if you're not completely satisfied, it doesn't matter, because we've already got your money!
      *Now with the goodness of all natural, sun ripened cane sugar!*
      (Suitable for vegetarians)

    this is also a good site if you want to find out out about all those 3-digit numbers on your food labels. then its also worth looking up those numbers - or the names of the substance in google to see if there are side effects or related health warnings. surprisingly, wiki has a decent amount of information which seems to be correct and true.

    Forget serving size, the nutrition panel should have stats based on consuming the entire pack.

    This comment contains no added sarcasm.

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