Three in four “healthy” children’s cereals, juices and ready meals are not meeting their claims of providing a five-a-day portion, a study has found.
Researchers found products contained too little fruit, set unrealistic portion sizes, or failed to specify key nutritional information, as part of an analysis of 323 products aimed at children.
Products, which use cartoon mascots, colourful packaging and toys to boost their appeal, also carry an array of “confusing” health claims which may give a false impression of their nutritional value.
The “health halo” effect is commonly used by manufacturers to disguise products that are high in sugar, the researchers from the University of Glasgow said.
“Pre-packed foods targeted to children can be consumed as part of a “balanced and healthy” diet, yet their health and nutrition claims remain questionable,” they added.
In total, 41 per cent of products targeting children were deemed “unhealthy” by nutritional standards set by Ofcom and child health experts warned “surreptitious packaging” may be driving the UK’s soaring child obesity rates.
The findings, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, found an array of other health claims used to give the impression of being nutritious.
These included references to being “healthy” or “part of a balanced diet”, being high in fibre, wholegrain, or containing micronutrients such as iron or calcium.
Of the 42 per cent of products which claimed to contain at least one portion of fruit or vegetables – which is 80g for adults – 75 per cent did not meet the specified amount when tested.
There is no regulated “five-a-day” portion for children, but for the purpose of the study researchers set the portion at 40g and found 62 per cent of products still did not meet this criteria.
These claims were particularly common on fruit-based drinks or snacks, many of which also claimed to contain “no added sugar” but which still contained large amounts of pureed or concentrated fruit juice.
“Processed fruits are perceived by the public as a healthy natural alternative to added sugars”, the researchers said.
But because they have been processed and have had fibre and other benefits removed, researcher suggest, “they potentially have the same negative effect on weight gain as other forms of sugars.”
In light of their findings, the authors said: “Strict regulations on product composition, food labelling and marketing techniques are required to discourage the promotion of foods which might be considered obesogenic.”
Last year the government recommended parents limit children to two snacks a day, but this may not go far enough if packaging claims are deceptive.
Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said: “Given the UK’s rising levels of childhood obesity, it is essential that parents and children know precisely what is in the products they consume and are not mislead by manipulative marketing campaigns. This study reveals concerning findings, particularly the disappointing levels of fruit and veg in products claiming to contain at least one portion of the Government’s recommended five-a-day.
“It is clear families are being influenced by surreptitious food packaging, and we strongly support the researchers’ call for stricter regulations on composition and labelling.”
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