Manufacturers imply food is healthy and filled with whole grains and fruit when these claims are often false or exaggerated, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which has published the report, says.
While food has to be labelled with sugar, fat and salt levels on the back of the packet, nothing stops the manufacturer from making false claims about nutrition and using deceptive pictures on the front. The answer, according to the EU consumer champion, is tougher regulations around food labelling.
The report, called Food Labels: Tricks of the Trade, uncovers multiple incidents of food mislabelling, which could surprise consumers who buy food trusting they’re purchasing healthy products produced on a small scale when they are not.
A food packet may have an image of fruit such as blueberries or cherries, implying healthfulness, while containing only a tiny amount of the fruit or using only flavourings to invoke the taste. A popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium, for example, is named as a ‘red fruit yoghurt drink’ and has pictures of raspberries and strawberries on the front. However, the drink contains only 2% of fruit juice, most of which is derived from cheaper apples.
‘Natural’, ‘traditional’ and ‘artisanal’ are familiar monikers to anyone who considers themselves a foodie, bringing to mind small suppliers crafting food that they’re passionate about. The report says, however, that many products of this ilk are made in factories. “Recipes which contain industrial dyes or additives which could not be reasonably considered as traditional are nonetheless labelled as such,” it states.
The image of all whole grain foods being healthy may also be a lie, with a packet of whole grain pasta which contains only 55% whole grain appearing no different to a packet of 100% whole grain pasta. While the correct amount of whole grains might be listed among the ingredients, products can masquerade as being wholesome and nutritious when they are not.
The issue is widespread across Europe, with the report compiling data from consumer organisations across the continent. An artichoke soup in Italy that said it had ‘natural ingredients’ contained only 2.7% artichoke and included flavourings. In the UK, the report points out that the advertising authority recently called out Pret for saying food was ‘natural’ when it contained E-numbers. And a ‘natural turkey fillet’ from Norway turned out to contain just 53% turkey, with the rest of the foodstuff being chicken and additives.
The report concludes that “it is high time consumers were given truthful information” and “it is essential that the EU institutions improve labelling rules”.