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Label detective: Health claims

Lots of product labels make health and nutrition content claims, but do they have to be true? Food law specialists at Simpson Grierson find out.

‘Protein for muscle growth’, ‘low fat’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘contains calcium to enhance bone mineral density’ … most of us have bought products based on claims made on labels. These claims can hold powerful sway over everyday shoppers. But how can we be sure the snack bar we choose really is a ‘good source of protein’?

What does the law say?

In New Zealand, health and nutrition content claims on food labels are regulated by the Food Code. Broadly speaking, these claims are voluntary statements, made by food businesses about the nutrients or substances in the product or the relationship between the food and its effect on a person’s health. Standard 1.2.7 was developed under the Food Code to regulate health and nutrition content claims so food businesses could be clear on what was required and to ensure such claims are substantiated.

In addition to the Food Code, food businesses must also ensure their claims don’t breach the Fair Trading Act (FTA). Under the FTA, claims must be true, not misleading, and capable of being substantiated.

Where’s the line in the sand?

Under the Food Code, if a claim is made about a certain nutrient in a food, or its health effect, certain threshold requirements must be met. For example, if it’s claimed a product is a ‘good source of protein’, it must contain at least 10g of protein per serve. Likewise, if a product claims it is ‘low in fat’, the food must not contain more than 3g of fat per 100g (for solid food) or 1.5g per 100ml (for liquid food).

The Food Code requirements for health claims are even more stringent. There are two types of health claims under the Food Code – general-level and high-level. A general-level health claim refers to the nutrient or food and its effect on health, such as ‘fibre helps digestion’. A high-level health claim refers to the nutrient or food and its relationship to a disease or condition, for example, ‘calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis’.

As a first step, to make any health claim, a food must meet the nutrient profiling scoring criteria (NPSC) – a calculator used to determine a food’s overall nutrient profile. The calculator takes the positive attributes of a food (eg, protein and fibre) and applies it against the negative attributes of the food (eg, saturated fat and sugar) to come up with a nutrient score, which determines whether a health claim is able to be made. If a food does not meet the NPSC, a health claim cannot be made for that food. It is unlikely businesses can make health claims for foods high in saturated fat, sugar or salt, as they generally do not meet the NPSC.

Second, a health claim must be a pre-approved claim under the Food Code and must meet the relevant requirements. Understandably, the wording for pre-approved claims can prove to be a creative nightmare for any marketing team, so the exact wording in the Food Code is not prescribed. This means alternative wording can be used, as long as it does not detract from the meaning of the claim.

Consumer tip

Don’t depend solely on label claims. Check the nutrition information panel (NIP) to determine if that protein-packed snack bar actually contains protein and how nutritious a product actually is.

Visit mpi.govt.nz for more information on health and nutrition content claims.

First published: Aug 2018



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