The authority said today that it had upheld a complaint against SmithKline Beecham, the manufacturers, by Action and Information on Sugars, a group of health specialists, over a poster campaign for Ribena Sugar Free last year. This is the fourth complaint over sugars which has forced a manufacturer to back down: Farley and Milupa have withdrawn advertisements and Kellogg has been censured.
Jack Winkler, chair of AIS, said the ruling would help inject some order into the 'anarchy of claims' being made over the health properties of foods, particularly those alleging they were 'free from' sugar or fat. A range of supposedly sugar- free products is coming on to the market in non-traditional areas such as chocolate, boiled sweets and mints, baby drinks, ice creams and biscuits.
According to the group, manufacturers are using loopholes in the law to claim products are sugar-free even when they contain sugars.
The ASA ruling, for example, could mean that Ribena is allowed to go on claiming that its products are sugar-free as long as it specifies how much sugar they contain. The authority argues there is no scientific consensus over how much sugar a sugar-free food is allowed to contain.
AIS disputes this, saying the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is proposing voluntary guidelines for manufacturers of 0.2 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. Even after diluting the Ribena by six parts of water, it is more than double MAFF guidelines.
The group claims manufacturers are sheltering behind a clause in the food regulations which allows them to claim that only sucrose is sugar. In fact, lactose, fructose, maltose and glucose are also sugars.
According to AIS, Sainsbury makes similar claims to Ribena on its squashes, which contain fructose. Boots claims its Chocco bars are sugar-free when they contain lactose. Bird's Angel Delight, made by Kraft, is described as 'particularly blatant'. It is claimed to be 'sugar-free*', but the asterisk reveals this means only 'sucrose-free'.
Manufacturers can also vary sugar content by altering dilution factors, which are ignored by consumers. Mr Winkler said Ribena had altered the dilution factor on its baby drink from 6:1 to 12:1, and added that the ASA ruling did not stop this form of manipulation.
More reliable information for consumers is expected soon with the introduction of new MAFF guidelines on which products are high or low in a nutrient, or free from it, and the British Dental Association's 'toothfriendly' logo, indicating that a product should not produce tooth decay.
Mr Winkler said investment by firms such as Milupa in developing genuinely sugar- free products was undermined if spurious claims made by rivals were allowed 'and consumers' trust is undermined if 'sugar-free' does not mean what it appears to mean'.
SmithKline Beecham 'strongly disagreed' that the posters were misleading and said advertisements should be as simple as possible provided the label supplied the facts.
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