Objective: To determine how various population groups in New Zealand interpret the nutrition content claims ‘97% fat free’ and ‘no added sugar’ on food labels.
Methods: A survey of adult supermarket shoppers was conducted at 25 Auckland supermarkets over a six-week period in 2007. Supermarkets were located in areas where greater than 10% of the resident population were known to be Māori, Pacific or Asian, based on 2001 Census meshblock data. Four questions in the survey assessed understanding and interpretation of the nutrition content claims ‘97% fat free’ and ‘no added sugar’.
Results: There were 1,525 people who completed the survey, with approximately equal representation from Māori, Pacific, Asian and New Zealand European and Other ethnicities. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of participants correctly estimated the fat content of a 100 g product that was ‘97% fat free’, and understood that a product with ‘no added sugars’ could contain natural sugar. However, up to three-quarters of Māori, Pacific, and Asian shoppers assumed that if a food carried a ‘97% fat free’ or ‘no added sugar’ claim it was therefore a healthy food. Similarly, low-income shoppers were significantly more likely than medium- or high-income shoppers to assume that the presence of a claim meant a food was definitely healthy.
Conclusion: Percentage fat free and no added sugar nutrition content claims on food are frequently misinterpreted by shoppers as meaning the food is healthy overall and appear to be particularly misleading for Māori, Pacific, Asian and low-income groups.
Implications: Nutrition content claims have potential for harm if the food they are placed on is not healthy overall. Such claims should therefore only be permitted to be placed on healthy foods.