Food health claims face new scrutiny

Nearly a third of all health claims on food sold in NSW supermarkets will have to be removed under laws to be introduced from Friday, research has found.

The laws mandate basic standards products must meet to promote the benefits of ingredients, preventing products making claims such as ''high in calcium for healthy bones'' when they are also high in things such as saturated fat, sugar and salt.

The food industry has been given three years before it will be forced to comply with the new standards.

Unhealthy foods that make only simple nutritional claims about the presence or absence of certain ingredients will not have to meet the health criteria; they will simply have to contain a certain level of that ingredient.

The nutrition program manager at the Cancer Council NSW, Clare Hughes, said people rely on health claims on food to make health-conscious choices. She believed any product that made nutrient claims should be covered by the new rules.

''It's only telling shoppers part of the story,'' she said.

''This can cause consumers to think products are healthier than they are.''

Her study, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition this week, assessed more than 1000 breakfast cereals, drinks and cereal bars for three different types of health claims: high-level claims that linked ingredients with particular conditions such as cancer; general claims linking ingredients with benefits such as healthy bones; and simple nutritional claims.

She found 29 per cent of the products that carried the simple nutritional claims would not meet the health standards if they were required to, in addition to a further 31 per cent of products making health claims that will now have to be removed.

She said health groups were concerned there would be a proliferation of basic nutritional claims in place of health claims once the new rules were enacted.

The parliamentary secretary for health, Catherine King, said the rules would give consumers confidence that health claims were backed by scientific evidence. ''It aims to support industry innovation and help consumers make informed food choices,'' she said.

But a spokesman for the Australia Food and Grocery Council said the rules were flawed and would lead to dairy and honey products being branded as unhealthy, and that the government had acknowledged more work needed to be done on the standard.

''It is fundamentally important to correct the major flaws in the health claims standard and address anomalies through this process, otherwise it risks retarding food manufacturing innovation and potentially could mislead consumers about the food they consume,'' he said.

A spokeswoman for Food Standards Australia New Zealand said nutritional claims would still need to meet high standards.

''For example … for vitamins and minerals 'good source' requires that 25 per cent of the RDI [recommended dietary intake] is present per serve of product,'' she said.

All health claims must now be supported with an agreed amount of evidence, and ''high-level'' health claims must be pre-approved. ''It's important that there is actual scientific evidence to support the claim,'' she said.

smh.com.au

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