Ask LH: What Happens If A Product Makes Fake Nutrition Claims?

Ask LH: What Happens If A Product Makes Fake Nutrition Claims?

Dear Lifehacker, I am on a calorie-controlled diet and was very excited to discover a delicious product which only contained 432 kilojoules per serve. I was quite sceptical how this product could be so low in KJ as I was still gaining weight on a limited number of calories. Recently I noticed the bottle of said product has now been labelled with a different count of 1297KJ per serve. When you drink up to four a day I now understand why I have been gaining weight!

I was wondering that the legalities of printing incorrect information on food labels are. There does not appear to be any published apology for the incident — just a sneaky change in label. What are companies supposed to do when this happens? Thanks, Diet Dilemma

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Dear DD,

The Australian Food Standards Code requires nearly all food products to include energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium content on the packaging’s nutrition information panel.

However, it’s up to the food manufacturer to calculate these numbers. This is usually achieved via a combination of laboratory analysis, food composition databases and the Nutrition Panel Calculator; an online tool provided by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

With the exception of laboratory analysis, the above methods are all based on empirical data which can lead to occasional inaccuracies. Indeed, the FSANZ acknowledges in its own documentation that there are a number of limitations in the current system which could contribute to margins of error:

FSANZ makes no warranty that the results generated by the Nutrition Panel Calculator will be free from error, or if used will ensure compliance with the relevant requirements of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Before relying on the results generated by the Nutrition Panel Calculator in any important matter, you should carefully evaluate the accuracy, completeness and relevance of the results for your purposes, and should obtain appropriate expert advice relevant to your particular circumstances.

With all that said, it’s rare for a product to contain three times as much energy as the nutrition information panel. Are you sure the company didn’t just change the ingredients or number of serving sizes per bottle?

Australia’s fair trading laws require that labels do not misinform through false, misleading or deceptive representations. Failure to comply can result in huge fines, so it seems unlikely that a company would deliberately flout the law just to hoodwink a few health-conscious customers. The risk simply isn’t worth it.

In any event, if you think you’ve been falsely advertised to, consider complaining to the relevant state body: you can find a list of contact details at the Australian Food Standards website.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Sounds to me like ‘Diet Dilemma’ cannot read packaging. 1297kj must be the bottle with 432kj being the serve and 3 serves in the bottle in total (1296).

    • Forgive me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they recently make a change so that in items which a consumer would likely consider to be one serving should be treated as such in labeling?

      Your point makes too much sense and I think in essence might have been what happened, but if we assume that the bottle had a per 100g and a serving size on it as you suggest but was forced to change how it labeled a serving size it would explain the change in label.

      It was one of those tricks where they’d have an artificially low serving size that didn’t reflect packaging or actual use to create some confusion as to it’s healthiness when compared to similar products. I wasn’t sure if the changes had been pushed through or not though.

        • My favourite was the Toblerone bar with 15 triangles and yet 16 suggested servings – of course people will only eat 15/16ths of each triangle!

        • Well sometimes that makes sense, it’s quite reasonable to expect someone to split a large chocolate bar between multiple people.

          But that idea isn’t the same when you buy a single bar, or a 600ml drink. There’s an implication that these are a single serve.

          It gets tricky, but specifically can be abused by a company. Imagine low fat yoghurt, I know the one I make has more fat than my competitor but that I can also make a profit selling it much cheaper than my competition.

          So instead of selling a 500ml tub like my competitor I sell a 600ml one for just under their price and change my suggested serving to 300ml. Now a random consumer picks up my tub and at a glance it not only looks cheaper, but healthier.

  • the serving size is meaningless, the companies can decide what the serving size is, there is no nutritional guidelines that they follow, that’s why a 600ml coke is 1 serving, but a 1.25l coke is 4 servings.
    the per 100ml is the only guide you can be sure of.

    The Checkout ran a good segment about this a while ago.

  • It does happen every now and then.
    These cakes are available in a lot of IGAs with slightly different packaging.:

    For a few years, the label indicated the whole item was about 800kj. About two years ago they quietly updated the nutritional panel, the only change being the cake now weighed in at about 4000kj. That’s when I stopped buying them.

    I wouldn’t mind knowing how often this sort of thing happens and how it was picked up: Did the manufacturer realise they were incorrect, or is there a group that performs random spot checks, or did a consumer do the maths and complain until somebody changed it?

  • There was definitely no change in the product and I can assure you I know how to read labels. Said product was previously labelled 93 KJ/100ml and 437KJ per serving (437ml) and is now labelled 275 KJ/100ml and 1297KJ per serving (437ml) . I suspect the first published label had its nutritional values based on an almond milk which is sold in supermarkets and is very watery and lower in calories. This product is a cold pressed almond milk which is a lot richer and thus much higher in calories. I am not sure how they realised the inaccuracy (whether there was a complaint or they picked it up themselves) I do not want to get the company into trouble but am interested in the policy around this.

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