Nutrition claims (such as “low in fat” or “sugar free”) on food packaging may lead people to increase their consumption of those products and their overall energy intake. When unhealthy products are allowed to carry these claims it may contribute to unhealthy diets and obesity. Policy makers should therefore consider restricting the use of nutrition claims on packaged foods as part of broader efforts to improve population diets.

What are nutrition claims?

Nutrition claims are statements on product packaging that suggest or imply that a food has particular nutritional properties, typically in relation to the content of fat, sugar, vitamins or minerals. They can be distinguished from health claims (such as “calcium helps build strong bones”) that describe properties of a food product or food component in relation to health or disease.

The use of nutrition and health claims varies between countries, with several jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand, the European Union (EU), Canada, and the United States regulating their use.

Nutrition labeling can influence dietary choices

As part of efforts to improve population diets and address high levels of overweight and obesity, the provision of nutrition information (e.g., through nutrition labels and nutrition claims) on food packages has increasingly become an important policy option.

There has been extensive research on the influence of nutrition labels. This has shown that nutrition labeling can be effective in empowering consumers to choose healthier products. However, the specific role of nutrition and health claims in the prevention of overweight and obesity has not previously been clearly delineated.

Our recent review set out to look specifically at the impact of nutrition claims relating to fat, sugar, and energy content on various aspects of food choices to understand how they contribute to efforts to prevent overweight and obesity.

Impact of nutrition claims relating to fat, sugar, and energy content on food choices

Our review found eleven relevant studies. Almost all of the studies were assessed as ‘low quality’, due to the nature of the experimental designs and the analysis methods used.

Three studies explored the influence of nutrition claims on perceived healthiness of products. All of these studies found that nutrition claims on products led consumers to perceive those products as healthier. A further two studies assessed the influence of nutrition claims on ‘tastiness’. These studies found that people expected products with claims to be less tasty, even though they could not always notice the difference in taste.

Two studies focused on perceived appropriate portion size and energy content of products with claims. These studies found that people perceived products with claims to be lower in calories. People also believed that an appropriate portion size for these products was substantially higher than for products without claims.

Three studies examined the influence of nutrition claims on purchase intentions. One study found people were more likely to want to try products carrying ‘low fat’ claims. However, other studies found that this influence varied by product category, with claims of reduced fat on chips lowering participants’ intention to buy, and claims of reduced sugar on breakfast cereal having no effect.

Five studies looked at the influence of nutrition claims on food consumption. All of these studies found that ‘low fat’ claims were likely to lead people to consume more of the product with the claim. Importantly, none of these studies measured the impact of claims on consumption beyond the immediate choice at hand, and so there is no available evidence of how overall daily energy intake might be affected.

Implications of the results

Policy makers around the world are currently considering a range of initiatives to improve population diets and address obesity. This review provides evidence to suggest that nutrition claims related to fat, sugar and energy content may lead to overconsumption of foods and subsequent higher energy intakes. Policy makers should therefore consider options to limit potential negative influences of nutrition claims.

The use of nutrition claims to boost sales of unhealthy foods warrants closer scrutiny.

Currently, regulation of nutrition claims varies across countries. In the EU, there are considerations of plans to incorporate specific criteria to restrict the use of nutrition claims on particular products. In Australia, health claims are restricted on products that do not meet criteria for healthiness; however, there are no restrictions on the types of products that can use nutrition claims.

While food companies use nutrition claims as marketing opportunities, some food companies voluntarily restrict the use of nutrition claims on their products. For example, Coles, an Australian supermarket chain, has a policy to only allow nutrition claims on their own-brand products that meet certain criteria for healthiness. As more attention is focused on the social impact of companies, the use of nutrition claims to boost sales of unhealthy foods warrants closer scrutiny.