10 Nov 2021 Guest Blog: The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Sugar-Related Claims on Food
This week marks the return of Sugar Awareness Week! We hear from Letitia, who is currently undertaking a student placement with Action on Sugar to discuss the complexities of understanding sugar-related claims on food and drink packaging…
Food labelling is increasingly becoming more complex, making it more difficult for us to understand what we are consuming. As individuals, we generally use mental shortcuts to make quick, efficient decisions. As a society, we are also becoming more health conscious. Food companies are using this to their advantage through misleading consumers using food labelling practices that trigger the health halo effect. This refers to the act of overgeneralising the healthfulness of a food item based on attributes of a single health claim.
As this week is Sugar Awareness Week, this blog will discuss sugar-related claims and consider whether they are as helpful and innocent as first perceived.
What do sugar-related claims really mean?
Based on current UK regulations, there are four sugar-related claims.
- Low sugars: where the product contains no more than 5 g of sugars per 100 g for solids or 2.5 g of sugars per 100 ml for liquids.
- Sugars-free:where the product contains no more than 0.5 g of sugars per 100 g or 100 ml.
- With no added sugars: where the product does not contain any added mono- or disaccharides or any other food used for its sweetening properties.
- Reduced sugars: where the reduction in sugar is at least 30% compared to a similar product.
At first glance, all these definitions seem fairly straightforward, but items containing such claims are not guaranteed to truly reflect their label. This is because sweeteners such as fruit purees are not included as ‘added sugars’. This is worrying as we may be consuming more sugar than intended and aware of. This begs the question, are we unintentionally exceeding our daily recommended sugar intake?
Manufacturers may also use sugar-related claims to mask other ‘unhealthier’ ingredients or hide the overall nutritional content of the item. Just because an item says it is low in sugars, it cannot be assumed that it is also low in calories or is necessarily healthier than the regular item.
Are we being misled by sugar-related claims?
There is research to illustrate the health halo effect triggered by sugar-related claims (1). In a recent study, different food item categories (yoghurt, ice cream, cookies and cereal) with various sugar-related claims (“0% sugar”, “sugar-free”, “no added sugars”, “low sugar”) were presented to participants. Researchers found that items containing sugar-related claims were perceived as more healthful and less calorific than their regular counterparts.
These results are consistent with other studies investigating perceptions of “fruit sugar” (2). Researchers found that when the ingredients of a breakfast cereal were labelled as “fruit sugar”, individuals were more likely to positively perceive the item as healthful compared to when the ingredient was labelled as “sugar”. This is despite both products having exactly the same nutritional information.
Both studies illustrate how we are commonly misled by sugar-related claims and fall into the health halo trap.
Appeal to the food industry
With misleading labels, selecting items and making healthy choices seems tricky. That is why the food industry needs to increase transparency on food labelling and stop capitalising on loopholes in how our food is being promoted. Information on the food that we buy should be clear and easily accessible. Needless to say, eating healthily should be straightforward.
Sugar Awareness Week 2021 8th-14th November
Sugar Awareness Week 2021 is a timely opportunity to celebrate successes and discuss what is next for sugar reduction in the UK as Public Health England’s sugar reduction programme comes to an end. This year’s theme is focussing on snacks, and how they contribute to daily sugar intake. We are all bombarded with sugary snack foods wherever we go, often with misleading claims on the packaging. We believe the food and drink industry should be doing more to reduce sugar and to provide healthier options.
Join the conversation on Twitter: #SugarAwarenessWeek
Letitia is a final year MSci Psychology student at University College London. She is currently undertaking a student placement with Action on Sugar. Through her knowledge of Psychology and joint expertise of those at Action on Sugar, she is conducting a research project on the impact of sugar-related claims and the traffic light system on UK consumers’ healthfulness perceptions and choice behaviour.
- Prada, M., Saraiva, M., Sério, A., Coelho, S., Godinho, C. A., & Garrido, M. V. (2021). The impact of sugar-related claims on perceived healthfulness, caloric value and expected taste of food products. Food Quality and Preference, 94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2021.104331
- Sütterlin, B., & Siegrist, M. (2015). Simply adding the word “fruit” makes sugar healthier: The misleading effect of symbolic information on the perceived healthiness of food. Appetite, 95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.07.011