Was there ever some golden age of breakfast food when you could count on honesty in nutrition claims? If there was it's long gone. I was in the cereal aisle of the local supermarket when another shopper stopped me - could I help her figure out if her choice of breakfast cereal was high in sugar? On the face of it this product ticked lots of healthy boxes - 98 per cent fat free, high in calcium, iron and folate said the really big writing on the front of the pack. It was only the tiny print in the nutrition panel on the back that told you it had 23g of sugar per 100g - meaning it was almost 25 per cent sugar. I could have stopped there, giving it the benefit of the doubt - maybe all the sugar came from dried fruit. But a glance at the ingredient list (more fine print) listed sugar ahead of dried fruit, meaning the sugar content outstripped the fruit content!
But the real prize for misleading packaging went to the Abundant Earth organic children's cereal further up the aisle. Its tasteful brown pack declared its organic credientials and said 'eating organic makes you feel better'. The problem was it contained chocolate (organic, of course) and that hiding behind the organic label was lots of - organic - sugar. It contained 44g of sugar per 100 g - nudging 50 per cent sugar and making it more like birthday cake than breakfast.
When time is short, it's easy to be misled by packaging that spruiks half truths and uses words like 'light', 'preservative-free' and 'organic' to imply a health benefit. It's a good argument for a traffic light system of labelling that would tell us with a glance at the front of the pack whether a product has high, medium or low levels of sugar, sodium, and saturated fat - green for low, amber for medium and red for high.
It's a proposal put forward for consideration by political parties before the election by the Obesity Policy Coalition, an organisation established by Diabetes Australia Victoria, The Cancer Council Victoria and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, to lobby for policy and regulatory initiatives to tackle obesity.
"It's difficult for people to make their way through the maze of information - especially when the positive points of the product are highlighted in big print on the front of the pack and you have to search the fine print at the back to find out what's really in the product," points out Jane Martin, Senior Policy Advisor with the Coalition,
A similar traffic light system is already in use on some foods sold in the UK, though at this stage, it's only voluntary and manufacturers aren't compelled to use it - read about it on the UK's Food Standard Agency http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/foodlabels/trafficlights/.
In the meantime, if you need help to negotiate half truths in the supermarket, try this easy guide from the current issue of Smart Living, the Cancer Council NSW magazine which explains how to gauge from the nutrition panel whether or not a food is high or low in sugar, sodium, fat and fibre.
The quantities given are per 100g
Sugar: a little = 5g ; a lot = 15g
Total fat: a little = 3g ; a lot = 20g
Saturated fat: a little = 1g ; a lot = 5g
Dietary fibre: a little = 0. 5g ; a lot = 3g
Sodium (salt): a little = 0.1g ; a lot = 0.5g
Do you think a traffic light system of labelling on packaged foods would make shopping easier?