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Damning report unveils “misleading” nutrition labels in UK, calls for tighter regulations on sugar, salt and fat

28 Jul 2022 —Campaigners are naming some of the world’s top multinational food companies in a report revealing items high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) are often mislabeled as nutritional products. The findings, published by Action on Salt (AoS) and ShareAction, are prompting a call for companies to reformulate popular brands and prioritize consumer health.

The report includes 20 “flagship” products each from Nestlé, Danone, Kraft Heinz, Unilever and Kellogg’s. It reveals 52 out of 100 would receive a red warning label for being either high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS).

NutritionInsight speaks to Danone UK and Ireland, Nestlé UK and Ireland, Kraft Heinz and Action on Salt on the implication of the findings. Kellogg’s and Unilever did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

“Short-term profit is trumping public health – but it is not sustainable,” says Hattie Burt, policy and communications officer, Action on Salt. “When the government brings in further advertising restrictions for unhealthy products, only products that have reformulated to be healthier will be allowed to be advertised.”

“As consumer demand shifts toward healthier products, companies that reformulate their products to be healthier stand to make the biggest profits.”

Hattie Burt says that prioritizing profits over health is unsustainable.Sugar and salt on an open wound
The survey also found that of the 55 products in the UK’s Department of Health salt reduction program, 18 did not meet the salt targets set by the UK government in 2020. The survey also found that many of the products still had excessive of sugar despite 2016 targets.

“Unfortunately, with the government failing to properly enforce salt and sugar targets, or to implement much-needed public health legislation – producing healthy, nutritious food is just not a priority for many big food companies,” explains Burt. “It’s clear that immediate government intervention is needed to level the playing field.”

“It’s a national scandal that most of these big food companies are blatantly contributing to the number of people dying and suffering unnecessarily from strokes and heart disease, which remains the biggest cause of death in the UK,” says Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine , Queen Mary University of London and Chair of Action on Salt.

“Improving the nutritional content of foods by reformulating recipes with less salt, sugar and saturated fat is by far the most important strategy to prevent obesity and heart disease,” he stresses.

A spokesperson for Kraft Heinz states that they have a long-standing commitment to improve the nutrition of brands and products.

“Some of the actions we are taking to support this commitment include ongoing improvements to the nutrition of our popular products, transparent and responsible marketing and communications, and alignment with credible science and public health goals. Through these actions, we aim to contribute to the key priorities and target achievements outlined by the World Health Organization.”

The report found that 18 of 55 products in the salt reduction program did not meet 2020 salt targets.More regulation the answer?
The survey also found that out of 62 products that made health and nutrition claims, 20 of them were still HFSS. Of these, the survey found Kellogg’s to be the biggest offender, with ten out of 16 products making health and nutrition claims still found to be HFSS foods.

A spokesperson from Kellogg’s gave NutritionInsight the following statement: “Four out of five of Kellogg’s top-selling cereals are non-HFSS and by next year all of our children’s cereals will be non-HFSS. We will continue to renew our food and launch new cereals and snacks to meet our consumer’s needs, for example the expansion of our range of non-HFSS high-fiber wheats range in the UK. We are always really open about what’s in our food by including things like traffic light labeling so people can make their own mind up about whether they want to buy our products or not. All the claims we use on pack follow the rules set down in law.”

AoS holds that more government intervention and a call for companies to shift marketing to “genuinely healthier options” may be the best way to keep consumers healthy and properly informed.

“For companies that refuse to reformulate, the government must take control and bring in legislated targets for salt, sugar and calories, with financial penalties for those that do not comply, as well as shortening the delay on unhealthy food and drink advertising and promotions restrictions ,” underscores Burt.

She further notes that the practice of making health and nutrition claims on unhealthy foods is still unregulated and legal. “At the moment, this practice is still legal, even though it is extremely misleading for consumers,” Burt stresses.

“We are calling on big food businesses to take some responsibility and stop making health claims on unhealthy products. Meanwhile, the government must urgently implement better food-labeling requirements so that companies are forced to label their products honestly.”

sink or swim
The publication further states that these companies will have to deal with the consequences of not reformulating their products, possibly soon.

“For products within the scope of the government’s advertising and promotion restrictions, such as yogurts, ice creams and breakfast cereals, if companies don’t reformulate – and quickly – from October, their products will no longer be allowed to be sold in the most lucrative high-footfall retail spots,” says Burt.

“What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly evident that investments in companies over-reliant on the sales of unhealthy foods are becoming stranded assets.”

Three of the five companies included in the study asserted their dedication to healthier foods and consumer nutrition.“These foods can and should be improved to contain less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and more fiber, protein, fruit and vegetables,” Burt concludes. “If retailers and smaller food manufacturers can achieve it, so can these big multinational organizations.”

“Our current priorities across our product categories include removing artificial colors; flavors and preservatives; reducing sodium and added sugar; and offering more gluten-free and plant based alternatives,” says a spokesperson from Kraft Heinz.

“Our direction of travel is clear,” emphasizes Philippa Naylor, senior media relations manager, Nestlé UK and Ireland. “We will continue to make every effort to contribute to healthy diets while reducing the environmental impact of our products.”

“We will continue innovating, reformulating, and working with retailers and industry groups to support the health of consumers,” Roulstone from Danone UK and Ireland affirms.

Not all bad news
The big exception was Danone, with only two of the 20 Danone products surveyed would be considered an HFSS food. For context, the next runner-up was Nestle at ten.

“At Danone we’re proud of our healthy portfolio and are pleased to have this recognized through Action on Salt’s survey – which describes Danone as having the ‘lowest proportion’ of unhealthy flagship products,” says Katie Roulstone, corporate communications officer, general secretary , Danone UK and Ireland.

“We urge the rest of the industry to join us in putting health first – going beyond just meeting regulatory standards, and actively working to make healthier choices the easy option,” adds Roulstone.

By William Bradford Nichols

This feature is provided by Food Ingredients First‘s sister website, NutritionInsight.

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