Food firms should be banned from putting “misleading” healthy eating labels on food packed with sugar and salt, British councils have said.
Health experts have uncovered numerous examples of "low fat" options at British supermarkets which contain far more sugar than their standard equivalent.
Recent research has also suggested that buzzwords such as "wholegrain" and "antioxidants" often dupe shoppers into thinking a food is healthy when it might be high in salt and sugar.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 400 councils in England and Wales, has now called on the EU to ban the misleading labels and to set caps on the amount of sugar, salt and fat a food product can contain if it is to be marketed with any claims of nutritional or health benefit.
Local councils were handed responsibility for public health last year and their intervention signals the increasing demand for the food industry to do more to help combat the UK’s obesity epidemic.
Yoghurts, cheeses, dressings and processed meat products are commonly marketed as low fat in the UK. By law, products labelled low fat must contain less than three per cent fat, but there are no other restrictions, enabling food companies to effectively replace fat with other unhealthy ingredients to maintain the flavour or structure of a product.
Foods labelled "reduced fat" must contain 30 per cent or less fat than the manufacturers’ standard product.
Councillor Katie Hall, chair of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said that shoppers “who are trying to do the right thing” were not being given “the full picture”.
“They are therefore unwittingly buying unhealthy products,” she said. “In our view this is wholly wrong and needs to be changed.”
Food manufacturers maintain that full nutritional information is given on the packet, and many food companies and supermarkets now display "traffic light" nutritional value labels on the front of their packs.
However, research has suggested that shoppers take on average just 15 seconds to decide on a supermarket purchase. Oxford University nutrition and health expert Dr Mike Rayner said that hurried consumers were far more likely to be swayed by “big, bold” claims on the front of the pack than nutritional labelling.
“If they are to be allowed to make these claims, they should be made for a genuinely healthy product,” he said.
The LGA said it wanted the European Commission to “to introduce robust, scientifically validated nutrient profiling and provide customers with a balanced and accurate picture what they are buying” and called on the British government to put pressure on the Commission to act.
A Department of Health Spokesperson said: "People leading busy lives need clear, consistent information so it is easier to make healthier choices when they do their shopping. We know this from survey after survey.
"All companies will have to include nutrition labelling on the majority of their products by law by December 2016, and businesses responsible for nearly two thirds of all food sales in the UK have already signed up to our clear, colour coded scheme.”