How food labels can mislead shoppers about fat content

by SEAN POULTER, Daily Mail

They promise not to weigh you down with unwanted fat.

But labels that promote a host of foods as 'light' or lower fat are making empty claims, a consumer watchdog has found.

Everyday products from fruit loaf to crisps, butter alternatives to cheese, carry misleading messages about their fat content. An investigation by the Consumers' Association found some foods branded as 'light' have up to seven times more fat than those described as 'low fat'.

The association said the problem arises because claims such as 'light' and 'lite' do not have an official meaning in law.

Consequently a wide range of manufacturers choose to use the descriptions, despite concerns that they are misleading.

For example, Philadelphia Light cream cheese may suggest a low fat content, but it is actually 16 per cent fat. Even Philadelphia Extra Light contains 5 per cent fat.

Neither of these products could officially describe themselves as 'low fat', because the Government's Food Standards Agency insists that food should be less than 3 per cent fat to qualify.

'It is incredible that food manufacturers can get away with using terms like "lite" and "light" which to most shoppers will mean low fat,' said a spokesman from the Consumers' Association.

'We found foods bearing these claims with a fat content which ranged from 4 per cent to a staggering 22 per cent.'

As well as the 'light' loophole, they found other diet products carrying labels trumpeting that they had a certain percentage 'fat free'.

A Soreen Snack fruit loaf, for example, claimed to be '90 per cent fat free'.

In reality, that means it has a high level of fat at 10 per cent.

Some food manufacturers are accused of hiding false claims in a product's name or slogan.

Rowntree's Fruitsome cereal bars carry the slogan 'Good food, good life'.

But 'bad teeth' might be a more accurate claim, according to the association, as the bars contain up to 38 per cent sugar.

Other products claiming to be 'light' included margarine spread Benecol Light with garlic and herbs, which was 14 per cent fat, and Dairylea Light thick cheese slices at 10.5 per cent. Kraft Light Singles were 11 per cent fat. Walkers Lites crisps were advertised as 33 per cent less fat, but still contained 22 per cent.

Laughing Cow Light had 7 per cent fat, while Marks and Spencer's Danish Prime Quality Lean Ham had the claim that it was 95 per cent fat free - meaning it still contained a considerable 5g of fat per 100g.

Even Spam Lite, which has 25 per cent less fat than 'normal', still has 17 per cent fat.

None of these products is breaking the law, but the association believes they are giving a false impression to consumers.

'Many products claim to be light, but there is no official or legal definition of what is light,' the spokesman said.

'It is high time that claims on foodstuffs like this were outlawed.'

The association also found the gap between food and medicine is narrowing.

Food supplements cannot claim they prevent or treat an illness, but some carry hints as part of their names. The name 'Osteacare', for example, implies the product could be beneficial to bone health.

The watchdog said: 'Claims for wellbeing on foods don't have to be vetted before a product is launched, but we think the law should change so they are.'

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency, which has a role in policing labelling, said it was waiting for the EU to act on misleading claims such as 'light' or 'lite'.

She said: 'There are no guidelines about the terms "light" or "lite", but we recommend that manufacturers explain clearly what the claim means on the food label.

'The European Commission is currently looking at descriptions on food packaging which is why we have not taken any action yet.'

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