Food labelling law not strict enough on sugar

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 November, 2009, 12:00am

Children with a sweet tooth can celebrate, but parents worried about their dental health will be disappointed. The Consumer Council has warned that claims about sugar content in drinks are not covered by the amended food-labelling law. Next time you read labels such as 'less sweet', 'unsweetened' and 'reduced sugar', do not take the claims at face value. They may be telling the truth, or they may not. Unfortunately, the amended law offers little or no protection in this regard.

The food-labelling law requires packaged food to carry so-called 1+7 labels, which declare a product's total energy value and that of seven core nutrients. The only wording about sugar that is regulated is 'sugar-free', which must contain not more than 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. A beverage company or its distributor is otherwise free to make claims about sugar content, misleading or not.

For example, Ribena Blackcurrant Drink is described as 'less sweet'. But that could cause confusion, as it contains 9.1 grams of sugar per 100ml - only 0.9 grams less sugar than a can of Classic Coca-Cola. Such wordings, therefore, describe subjective taste rather than measurable content. However, Low Sugar Vitasoy Soymilk and Malted Soymilk meet the 0.5 grams limit set for 'sugar-free' claims. So, some companies are conscientious. But parents - and people on a diet - need to be aware.

The people who drafted the amendment took an excessively literal approach. Apparently, they did not consider wordings and expressions about sugar content to be nutritional claims. From a strictly scientific standpoint, that may be the case. But it would be hard to find a conscientious nutritionist who does not worry about sugar intake for a child when advising a parent. Sugar is everywhere and children love it. But it is not just visits to the dentist parents have to worry about. Excessive sugar intake can undermine a healthy balanced diet. It can also affect the energy levels and sleep patterns of children. Stricter regulations on sugar claims should have been included in the amended law.