Giving you the squeeze: Fruit Juice companies are not 100% honest

Packed lunches are top of mind for parents and care givers who are getting ready to send their little ones back to school. These often include fruit juices which parents see as a healthy alternative to sodas and other sugar sweetened beverages.

However, fruit juices benefit from the health halo effect. These days the dangers of drinking too many sugar sweetened beverages like soda are well known, however many of us do not realise that some fruit juices have more sugar than sodas. Drinking too much fruit juices has been shown to lead to an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Unlike a regular fruit, which contains fibre and is more filling, fruit juices have little to no fibre giving them a high glycaemic index.

Cereal companies are no better. South African researchers have highlighted the targeting of children by cereal manufacturers. Of the 222 breakfast cereals studied, about 97 % had a health claim. Even worse, the cereals with health claims which were marketed at children were found to be less healthy overall: such cereal had a significantly lower protein and fibre content and a significantly higher total carbohydrate and total sugar content.

Parents want to be healthy and make good food choices. Often this means making buying decisions based on a claim on the food package that it has some positive effect on your health (termed health claims). Unfortunately, these claims are not always true, or focus on one aspect of food to the exclusion of mentioning unhealthy components.

Food manufacturers often rely on health claims to create false impressions on food.

Many of the so-called “health foods” claim to be high in fibre and low in fat while hiding the fact that they contain high levels of other unhealthy ingredients, think of your classic yoghurt advert. This creates a “health halo” – a phenomenon where select claims on a product create an overestimated or false sense that the whole product is healthy.

While one cannot claim that intentions are always malicious, in a world where people are becoming increasingly health conscious it is obvious that big food would use the health halo to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. The health halo makes it harder for people to decide between healthy and unhealthy food.

This is why South Africans urgently need a regulation that prohibits food manufacturers from making health claims on foods that are high in nutrients of concern such as salt, sugar and saturated fat.

Should the government, and over 12 000 South Africans have their way, all foods and beverages that have high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat and fall within “high in” thresholds or contain any non-sugar sweetener will have a front-of-pack warning label (FOPWL) on them. Foods that contain a warning label will not be allowed to carry a health claim that changes the perceived healthfulness of the product.

In a country where most of the nutrition labels on food are complicated and difficult to understand for the ordinary person, it makes sense that people would rely on health claims to make their decisions.

Parents and caregivers deserve better.

Experts are sounding the alarm on the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes. South Africa in particular is on the precipice of a disaster. “The prevalence of diabetes mellitus has rapidly increased in South Africa, from 4.5% in 2010 to 12.7% in 2019. Of the 4.58 million people aged 20–79 years who were estimated to have diabetes in South Africa in 2019, 52.4% were undiagnosed” the researchers found. The primary cause of this explosion of disease was found to be closely related to nutrition.  People need to be given an opportunity to make better choices for themselves without being misled by untrue claims.

A suggestion from the food and beverage industry is to be given a chance to self-regulate. However, research has proven time and time again that voluntary regulations are often weak and do not go far enough to protect the consumer.

Researchers in Brazil found that food producers deliberately used nutrition claims as a promotional strategy for their unhealthy foods. This study, looked at the packaging on over 2000 ultra-processed foods noting that of which 59.8% of the packaging presented at least one promotional strategy. Unsurprisingly, nutrition claims were the most commonly found promotional strategy, followed by health claims and the use of characters.

In order to give people a chance to make meaningful changes to their health, South Africans need clear, easy-to-read nutrition labels on the front of food packages. Companies cannot be allowed to continue to mislead well-meaning South Africans. Mandatory, comprehensive labelling laws are vital to achieve this end.