Misleading and meaningless claims on food labels are to be banned under EU laws proposed yesterday in a drive to regulate the industry and inform consumers.
The move, announced by David Byrne, the European commissioner for consumer affairs, would outlaw claims such as "preserves youth" and "reduces stress", and draw up strict rules to cover other statements such as "low in fat" or "high in fibre".
The laws would also crack down on claims that are accurate but misleading, for example that products with a 10 per cent fat content - which is high for many of them - are "90 per cent fat-free".
The idea behind the initiative is to help shoppers choose a healthy diet in the face of rocketing rates of obesity, frequent food scares and growing interest in food products that claim to have a beneficial effect.
Mr Byrne said yesterday: "Any information about foods and their nutritional value used in labelling, marketing and advertising which is not clear, accurate and meaningful and cannot be substantiated will not be permitted."
His proposed legislation was welcomed as a good starting point by the Consumers' Association and MEPs, but criticised by the food industry, which regards a ban on claims as disproportionate.
The Labour MEP Catherine Stihler said: "Almost one in five people is obese in the UK and the number of obese children has doubled in a decade.
"It's a jungle out there as far as healthy eating is concerned. With pizzas, french fries, giant muffins and chocolate cookies on sale at every street corner there's no shortage of temptation. And you can't make good food choices if you are fed the wrong information."
The law, which needs to be approved by member states and the European Parliament, lays down definitions for the first time. For example, low-fat products would be those with no more than 3g of fat per 100g or 1.5g per 100ml. Fat-free would be no more than 0.5g per 100g or 100ml, and claims that products are any percentage fat-free would be prohibited.
"Low sugar" produce would apply to products with no more than 5g per 100g or 100ml and "sugar-free" would be less than 0.5g per 100g or 100ml. And "high fibre" will be defined as a minimum amount of fibre per unit: six grams per 100g or at least 1.5g of fibre per 10kcal grams of the ingredients.
Relatively neutral statements would be acceptable, for example, those that say calcium aids the healthy growth of teeth and bones.
Other general descriptions would be covered as well. Most products labelled "light", "lite" or "reduced" in fat or sugar would normally have to contain 30 per cent less fat or sugar than a similar product.
Mr Byrne said: "Implement-ation of this proposal will allow industry and consumers to benefit from the correct use of claims. Consumers will receive accurate and meaningful information and food producers will be able to use serious and scientifically substantiated claims as a marketing tool without being drowned by the many unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims that exist on the market." No food product would be banned, as long as claims were modified or removed, if necessary, so consumers had an accurate picture of what they were buying.
The Commission hopes EU ministers will approve the plans in time to introduce the rules across the EU by the end of 2005. They will then be written into law in all member states, each of which will decide on the local penalties.
Reality check - the Truth behind the claims
Kellogg's Frosties cereal:
The claim: Good for healthy bones and energy
The truth: Contains 40 per cent sugar; the healthy bones claim is based on milk added to the cereal
Walkers Lites crisps
The claim: Lower fat snacks
The truth: Still contains 22g fat in every 100g - or 5.3g per bag
Philadelphia light cream cheese
The claim: Low-fat alternative to cream cheese spreads
The truth: Still contains 16 per cent fat
Asda Good For You fresh houmous
The claim: Part of the supermarket's healthy eating range
The truth: Still has 18g of fat per 100gReuse content