Foods Claiming Reduced Fat or Sugar: Not Necessarily Healthier

Although claims such as no-sugar, low-salt, or low-fat on product packaging rarely indicates a food's actual nutrient quality, these phrases often give consumers a sense of confidence about their purchase, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The investigators report that many foods with low sugar, fat, or salt claims have worse nutritional content than items not using those claims. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories. sodium, sugar, or fat may be more likely to have low- or no- content claims,” said lead researcher and assistant UNC professor, Lindsey Smith Taillie.

Though packaging claims can be misleading, many consumers assume that foods bearing reduced claims are generally healthier. However, the phrase reduced-fat on a package only indicates it contains less fat than the original full-fat product, yet the sugar and sodium content could be the same or higher than in the original.

A three-cookie serving of reduced fat Oreos, for instance, has four-and-a half grams of fat, while a serving of full-fat Oreos has seven fat grams, yet both types of Oreo contain the same 14 grams of sugar per serving. Still, the reduced fat claim creates an impression that low-fat Oreos are “healthy.”

After analyzing the data from 80 million food and drink purchases by 40,000 households over four years, Taillie and colleagues noted that 13 percent of the food, and 35 percent of drinks purchased carried a no, free, low, or reduced content claim. The most frequent claim was low-fat, followed by low-calorie, sugar, and sodium.

While the purchasing patterns of different ethnic groups were not statistically significant, the study found white non-Hispanic households leaned toward products with low-calorie claims, Asian households tended to buy more low-fat, and low-sodium foods, and black non-Hispanic households purchased the fewest low-content items. High and middle income households were more likely to buy food and drink bearing low-content claims.

Since packaging claims influence the quality of our diet, how these claims interact with advertising strategies, price promotions, and other buyer behaviors is, according to Tallie, a question for future research.

Source: Science Daily

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