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Marge labels spread confusion

April 1998

Shoppers wanting to choose a healthier spread face a range of products making confusing health claims, according to a Food Commission survey of over 40 margarines, reduced and low-fat spreads, buttery spreads and spreadable butters published in the Food Magazine today.

Industry guidelines1 for making claims about saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are confusing, anomalous, unhelpful to consumers and out of step with other guidelines.

For example, Blue Band Margarine (19% saturated fat) can claim it is 'low in saturates' while Gold Lowest Light (6.5% saturated fat) cannot. International standards set by Codex2 say that a 'low in saturates' claim should only be made if the product contains less than 1.5% saturates.

The Food Commission also found that:

  • Some products fail to state their fat content prominently on the label as required by EU law3, or to describe their products properly using a 'permitted sales description';
  • The majority of products carried claims such as 'low in saturates', 'high in polyunsaturates' or 'high in monounsaturates' but nearly half of these fail to meet the industry's own guidelines.
  • The healthiest spreads are those with the lowest saturated and trans fatty acids, but not all products declare the amount of trans fatty acids they contain.

'Voluntary guidelines clearly aren't working,' said Sue Dibb, author of the report. 'We want clear regulations, with all products carrying full nutritional details, including trans fats. With government health advisors recommending we cut the fat we eat, there should be tougher controls on how these fat-laden products are labelled and advertised.'

  1. Code of Practice for Nutrition Claims for Margarine and Spread Products, Margarine and Spreads Association, 1 October 1997.
  2. Codes Guidelines for Use of Nutrition Claims, 1997.
  3. EC Council Regulation 2991/94 which came into force at the beginning of 1996.

NB. Although the words margarines and spreads are often used synonymously, there are strictly defined categories depending upon the total amount of fat, and the type of fat, in the product. For example, margarines must be at least 80% fat while low fat spreads must have less than 41% fat.