Veggie chips on a blue background

‘Healthy’ snack foods big on marketing, small on nutrition

2 July 2020
Confused by excessive buzzwords on your granola bar packaging? Nutrition researchers at the University of Sydney have found that is likely a deliberate ploy.

Do you buy products at the supermarket based on their health claims? If so, you may want to reconsider doing this in the future.

A University of Sydney study has found that health food snack products contain significantly more claims and buzzwords than their non-health counterparts, despite being only marginally healthier.

Led by Masters students Hollie James and Maddison Breen from the Nutrition & Dietetics Department at the Charles Perkins Centre and the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, the study involved the collection of data from 1110 health food snack products (from health food aisles in supermarkets and health food stores) and 2361 equivalent regular aisle products in supermarkets. The authors compared their nutrition content claims, health claims, and ‘buzzwords’ on labels; nutrition profiles; and price.

They found that not only did health food products use significantly more claims and ‘buzzwords’ than regular aisle products; the most claims and ‘buzzwords’ were found on products with Health Star Ratings of up to and including 2.5 out of 5 (less healthy options).

“As consumers struggle to interpret product nutrition labels, the presence of many claims, though legal, may be misleading,” Ms James said.

A granola bar

Is this bar as healthy as it seems? You may want to read the fine print.

Though the health food snacks were marginally healthier overall (with average Health Star Ratings of 2.5 versus 2.0) most of the products from either category were discretionary foods – those that should be consumed only occasionally.

“This emphasises the concern surrounding ‘health’ food products,” Ms James continued.

“There were no significant differences between health food snacks and regular aisle snacks in terms of energy, saturated fat or sodium. These components are all noted as ‘of concern’ by the World Health Organisation, as they can be detrimental to human health.”

Health food snacks were also found to be substantially more expensive, but price did not correlate with the ‘healthfulness’ of a health product.

“If consumers pay a premium for ethical, organic and sustainable foods, they should not be confused with purchasing foods that are healthier,” Ms James said.

The journal Nutrients published the research.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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