Breakfast cereal nutrition labels "cannot be totally relied upon" to indicate true food composition and should be "fact-checked" regularly, according to the findings of a new report by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).
The report was carried out to evaluate the use of nutrition labels on breakfast cereals to see whether they can be relied upon to monitor “food reformulation” of food sold on the Irish market.
Food reformulation is when producers reduce ingredients such as fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in processed and packaged food in order to improve its nutrient quality and health profile.
The process is seen as offering a cost-effective opportunity to combat obesity, which affects more than half of the population in Ireland.
The report, which analysed the contents of about 200 cereals, concluded that their labels “may not reflect” this process and that those on the Irish market “need to be fact-checked regularly”.
The FSAI examined the cross section of breakfast cereals to "determine the accuracy of the nutrition labels" in line with European Commission (EC) guideline nutrition labelling tolerances, ie acceptable levels of deviation from stated levels.
The study found that analysed content of fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt “was lower than was stated on the label in 68.3 per cent of the analysed breakfast cereals that were found to be outside of EC guideline nutrition labelling tolerances.
“While this is a potential non-conformance with the labelling tolerance guidance, it is one that favours the consumer in terms of a healthier nutrient profile for breakfast cereals on the market.”
The study found declared nutrition labels were “mostly in line” with EC guideline nutrition labelling tolerances for saturated fat, sugar and salt content of breakfast cereals.
However, 14.1 per cent of breakfast cereals were outside EC guideline nutrition labelling tolerances for total fat.
While the study observed “no systematic bias” for placing breakfast cereals on the market with higher nutrient content than that shown on the label, it suggested that “declared nutrition labels may not reflect food reformulation efforts”.
Based on the findings of the study, the FSAI recommended that the contents of the report be taken into account by a working group on obesity that is tasked with developing a reformulation monitoring programme.
“There are numerous factors which influence variations in declared and analysed nutrient content of breakfast cereals, and this requires further investigation with the food industry as it could affect reformulation monitoring,” it said.
“Based on the findings of this study and a previous study which applied the same methodology to yogurts, reformulation monitoring programmes using declared nutrition labels need to be fact-checked at regular intervals using nutrition label verification.”