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Food labels to take with a pinch of salt

Common words describing food aren't what they seem


Four out of five people in our survey said they were trying to choose a healthy diet

Common words used by some manufacturers on food labels to promote their products aren’t what they seem and are causing confusion for consumers, warns Which?

The consumer champion found that certain food and drink brands are baffling people with how they market products with words such as ‘pure’, ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘real’. Under European food law, the labelling and presentation of food should not mislead consumers. 

The Food Standards Agency publishes guidance on the use of particular words and phrases commonly used to describe foods. It offers a code of good practice to companies but isn’t legally binding.

‘Fruit juice’ or ‘juice drink’?

When Which? surveyed 1,023 adults (aged 16-64 years) in July, a third thought that the phrase ‘real fruit’ meant fruit was the main ingredient of a product, while 43 per cent of people believed that drinks labelled as ‘juice drink’ must contain at least a quarter fruit juice.

But Rubicon Sparkling Passion Juice drink contains just five per cent juice concentrate and actually has more sugar than concentrate. Despite this, Rubicon as a ‘juice drink’ rather than ‘juice’ is legally free to include ‘real fruit juice drink’ on the bottle. 

Equally confusing is This Water’s packaging, which describes healthy-sounding natural spring water and real fruits but fails to highlight the sugar content – which amounts to up to 22g per serving, and between 69 and 89g in each one-litre bottle.

Regulation or guidance

Some terms – such as organic, free-range and some precise terms like ‘Traditional Farmfresh Turkey’ – are specifically defined under food labelling rules, showing that not all adjectives should be dismissed. Terms like ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ however aren’t specifically regulated but are subject to guidance. 

This guidance was previously issued by the Food Standards Agency, but following the recent reshuffle this and all food labelling issues are dealt with by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Which? chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith says: ‘We support the Food Standards Agency’s labelling guidance for food manufacturers, but our research shows that there is confusion about what some of the words used on food labels actually mean. It’s essential that Defra remains consumer-focused now that labelling issues fall under its remit, ensuring that the words used on food labels are clear so that consumers know what they’re getting.’

Which? has raised all of these issues with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

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