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Food Safety Focus (48th Issue, July 2010) – Food Safety Platform

Nutrition Claims - A Quick Reference for Choosing Foods

Reported by Ms. Melissa LIU, Scientific Officer
Risk Assessment Section
Centre for Food Safety

Why Should We Regulate Nutrition Claims?

Nutrition claims, such as low fat and higher calcium, are often found on food packages and used as a marketing tool for promoting food products. Regulating these claims can prevent their abuse for consumers may trust them when making food choices and use these claims as a quick reference for choosing healthier food.

Under the Nutrition Labelling Scheme that came into effect recently, nutrition claims must meet certain specified conditions. There are three main types of nutrition claims: nutrient content claim, nutrient comparative claim and nutrient function claim. These claims are used to emphasise selected nutritional properties of foods.

Establishing Specific Claim Conditions

When deciding which claims are allowed, regulators and scientists considered whether the claims are significant from a nutrition point of view, and whether their use may likely mislead consumers. When establishing the local nutrition claim conditions, we have made reference to those adopted by international and overseas food standard setting agencies and considered fundamental principles including the scientific evidence on the effect of nutrients on health, and the relevant nutrition policy.

Nutrient content claims

For some nutrients such as fat and sodium which intake should be limited, conditions for "low" or "free" claims of these nutrients have been established so that only products satisfying the relevant conditions are eligible to make such claims. On the other hand, dietary fibre is beneficial to health and high intake is recommended. Therefore, conditions for the claims "source" or "high" have been established. These two kinds of claims would facilitate consumers choosing healthier foods in response to dietary recommendations.

When establishing the conditions for some other nutrient content claims, the usual level of nutrient in food and the amount of food commonly consumed are considered. For instance, the level of trans fat in various food items, as well as the population's consumption amount of trans fat-containing foods, have been assessed for setting the condition for the claim "trans fat free". Practical issues such as sensitivity of laboratory testing methods have also been considered. To this end, for "trans fat free" products, the trans fat level may not be absolute "0" and trace amount of trans fat may be present.

Nutrient comparative claims

Some products, by nature, are not likely to satisfy conditions for nutrient content claims. However, their nutrient content may be higher or lower than those of similar products in the market. For example, one type of cookies may not be "low fat" but it has lower fat content than other cookie products (i.e. "lower fat"). Under such circumstances, nutrient comparative claims can be made on products if their nutrient contents are significantly higher or lower than those of other similar products. By doing so, traders could tell their consumers that a certain product is, for example, higher in calcium or lower in fat, as compared to another similar product. Consumers may then be informed of the availability of the "better" choices.

Nutrient function claims

For some products, information on nutrient function, e.g., calcium builds stronger bones, is provided for consumers' reference. These claims must be based on sound scientific evidence so that they are credible for consumers. As there is still no consensus among scientists on some nutrient functions, unsubstantiated claims would not be allowed so as to avoid confusing or misleading consumers. However, international development would be monitored and the claims would be reviewed regularly.

Reading Claims, Choosing Food

Highlighting the featuring nutritional properties of different food products, nutrition claims are useful for making quick reference when choosing foods. However, consumers are also encouraged to understand the overall nutritional property of the food product for making healthy food choices. In the next issue, we will discuss how information on nutrition label could be used in choosing healthier foods.