Canadian nutrition label claims often wildly misleading, tests show
OTTAWA – Some of the world’s biggest food brands and leading organic labels have understated the amount of bad nutrients – such as fat, sugar and sodium – in their products, or overstated the good ones, internal government tests show.
Kraft, Frito Lay, Unilever and Heinz are among the big names with a product that flunked Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) testing, conducted to see if nutrition claims on labels live up to their billing.
Loblaw’s popular President’s Choice brand had multiple “unsatisfactory” tests on products ranging from cereal to spaghetti.
Premium brands like Amy’s Kitchen, Eden Organic, Natur-a, Kashi and Yves Veggie Cuisine also fell short on composition claims, as did Canadian food-makers like B.C.-based Sun-Rype Products Ltd. and Quebec-based Aliments Fontaine Sante.
Test results involving these and other companies, conducted between 2006 and 2010, have just been released under Canada’s access to information legislation. CFIA previously released overall statistics about compliance rates for some product categories, but the earlier release did not contain individual test results and did not name specific brands or products.
The level of detail provided in the newly released documents shows labelling problems are widespread.
But most companies told Postmedia News that, when CFIA flags a labelling problem, they move quickly to change the labels. Some major operators even beefed up their own internal controls to better monitor their nutrition claims.
CFIA allows for a variance of up 20 percentage points on nutrition information found on food packages to account for natural variances in ingredients or deviations in testing equipment. Anything beyond that is considered unsatisfactory.
Companies tagged with unsatisfactory results say they’re committed to providing accurate information. But natural variances in ingredients, including crop fluctuations with organic produce, or changes in a product’s nutritional composition over its shelf life, means this is not a perfect science, they say.
Some consumers wonder whether they can rely on the nutrition information on food labels, since CFIA can only test a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of products on store shelves in any given year. It’s unclear whether CFIA’s limited testing program is representative of the entire market or masks an even bigger program.
“It’s really discouraging to see that labels can be off by so much,” says registered dietitian Mark McGill.
CFIA’s overall statistics from 2006 and 2010 involving key product categories (breads and baked goods, confectionary items, and snacks) certainly paint a picture of inconsistency. Of 621 products tested, 360 items (58 per cent) did not live up to all the nutrition information on their packaging.
Food inspectors across the country fanned out to grocery stores annually under “routine intelligence” or “regular monitoring” to pick up these and other items.
According to the new documents, inspectors found products with unsatisfactory results at large grocers including Thrifty’s in Victoria, B.C., Save on Foods in Burnaby, B.C., Sobey’s in Edmonton, Safeway in Saskatoon, Real Canadian Superstore in Toronto, Loblaw’s in Montreal, Metro In Quebec City, and Price Chopper in Newfoundland.
Specialty stores like Whole Foods Market in Vancouver, Planet Organic Market in Edmonton and Canada in a Basket in Ottawa are also on the list, as is Walmart in Edmonton, Dollarama in Regina and Giant Tiger in Winnipeg.
The tests check to see if the levels of nutrients were low enough to permit a claim on the front of food packages about being low in fat, sodium or sugar. Government inspectors also tested if claims like “no cholesterol,” “omega-3” or “high in fibre” were accurate.
The agency also took samples of various product types, including juices and canned goods, to see if they matched the amount of nutrients and calories listed in the Nutrition Facts Table on the back of packaging.
Among the breads and baked goods tested, Fenwicks “no sugar added” cookies (too much sugar), Vital cookies (too little omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), Peek Freans Lifestyle cookies (too little fibre) and Bakery Counter whole wheat pita bread (too many calories) didn’t live up to their billing.
Among the confectionary items, some didn’t meet the standard to be called “chocolate” (Humeur Groupe Conseil Inc.) or “Belgian milk chocolate” (Chocolaterie de L’Ile Orleans).
In the snacks category, Krispy Kernels Inc.’s Island mixed nuts claimed to contain 90 per cent of the recommended daily intake of iron per serving. Samples tested by CFIA found contained a fraction of that: 10.5 per cent.
A sampling of other findings shows the huge discrepancies that can exist between labels and ingredients.
Some snacks boasting a “No cholesterol” message on their label showed levels ranging from 4.3 milligrams (Lays Smart Selections chips) to 10.5 mg (Barbara’s Cheesepuff Bakes) per portion, according to CFIA tests.
(PepsiCo says its own tests on Lays chips, conducted after CFIA informed the company of the agency’s eight unsatisfactory tests involving samples of three Smart Selections chip products, showed the claim was accurate.)
Kraft made the same no-cholesterol claim for its Ritz “Real Cheddar Cheese” crackers, but CFIA testing showed the crackers contained 3.2 mg per portion. Dare’s cinnamon snap biscuits contained 4.9 mg, CFIA testing showed.
These discrepancies pale in comparison to the findings of two canned snail products picked up from Dollarama stores in Regina. The products of Indonesia, branded as “Beaver” and “Pacific Pride,” contained 147 mg and 131 mg of cholesterol per serving respectively, not zero as claimed.
Canned foods from Unico (pizza sauce), Primo (vegetable soup), Stokely (pumpkin) and Amy’s (refried beans, butternut soup) all fell short of their vitamin claims. So did Eden Organic’s vegetable spirals, President’s Choice organic pasta sauce, Fontaine Sante spinach dip and Island Farms yogurt.
Of the 40 products found to be overstating the amount of vitamins in their products, Yves Veggie Cuisine Ground Round (Mexican flavour) and a prepared pasta dinner by Olivieri Creations stood out for being wildly inaccurate.
The label on Yves Veggie Cuisine Ground Round, a product of the Hain Celestial Group, said each serving contained 80 per cent of the daily value of vitamin A, but CFIA testing showed 3 per cent. And a pre-packaged tortelloni and chicken dinner by Olivieri Creations claimed to contain 110 per cent of the daily value of vitamin C per serving, but CFIA found a serving contained only 1.1 per cent.
Sun-Rype, Oasis and Bolthouse Farms were among the juice brands that overstated – by about double – the amount of a vitamin.
Two juices from Dewlands fared worse; each boasted 35 per cent of the daily value of vitamin A, but none was detected in either. Rubicon’s mango juice claimed to contain 50 per cent of the daily value per serving, but CFIA found a much lower amount, at 13.1 per cent.
Ceres Fruit Juice Blend Pomegranate & Lime claimed to contain 30 per cent of the daily value of iron per serving, but CFIA found only 2.7 per cent. Ceres Ruby Grapefruit Juice contained 1.7 per cent, but label claimed 15 per cent.
A Compliments Balance muesli cereal also fell short of iron (11.4 per cent, compared to 20 per cent claimed), as did Thrifty’s branded whole baby clams, which claimed to be packed with 80 per cent of the daily value of iron per serving, but CFIA testing showed 51.9 per cent.
President’s Choice blue menu “very high fibre” spaghetti, claiming to contain 19 grams per portion, was considered unsatisfactory.
Big-brand products that failed to live up to their omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acid claims included President’s Choice Angus burgers, Kraft House Italian dressing and Country Harvest tortillas. Hellmann’s mayonnaise under-delivered on the amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids, as did Kashi’s honey almond flax cereal.
Specialty products that overstated one these so-called “good fats” include Natur-a soy beverages, So Good fortified soy beverage, Ruth’s cereal, and Mom’s Healthy Secrets cereal.
Raincoast Trading canned salmon, GoldSeal canned salmon, Ocean’s canned salmon, Our Compliments salmon burgers and High Liner salmon were among the fish products that overstated the amount of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids.
Some products pitched as reduced in sodium didn’t live up to their billing, including Heinz “25 per cent less sodium” Dora the Explorer vegetable and pasta soup, Eden Organic “low salt” canned green lentils, rice and beans, R.W. Knudsen Family “low sodium” vegetable cocktail, “50 per cent less sodium” President Choice crackers, and “low sodium” President’s Choice tomato and roasted red pepper soup.
There were also “unsatisfactory” discrepancies in three different Bread Works Bakery “low in sodium” cracker products, with one containing 277.8 mg of sodium, not 70 mg, according to CFIA tests.
Two different cans of Unico artichokes, picked up four months apart, were found to be saltier than claimed on the Nutrition Facts Table.
“Light tasting” Nutriwhip testing showed 68 calories per portion, not 20 as claimed on the label. A green tea beverage from Tempest Tea claimed to contain just 5 calories, but testing showed 106 calories per portion.
Companies contacted about the test results told Postmedia News that they take nutrition information seriously – that’s why those who responded say they updated the labels after being informed of inaccurate information on their label.
And some even changed internal protocols to enhance ongoing fact-checking of nutrition claims – pointing to possible widespread oversight gaps that aren’t discovered until CFIA identifies a problem.
“It’s not a perfect science,” says Kraft Canada spokeswoman Stephanie Minna Cass.
“Ultimately, we believe in accurate labelling because we believe it’s important to give consumers all the information they need to make the informed decisions, so we actually changed the label immediately just to manage any fluctuations that could occur moving forward.”
That means the Ritz real cheddar cracker no longer lists “0 cholesterol” on the front of its package and updated the nutrition facts table on the back.
Linda Smith, a spokeswoman for the Olivieri Creations brand, says that when CFIA informed the company of tests showing a prepared pasta dinner contained 1.1 per cent of the daily value of Vitamin C per serving – not 110 per cent as claimed in the nutrition facts table – the “company immediately fixed it.”
Then it went further. The product, which has since been discontinued, was produced by a third-party manufacturer that was responsible for labelling and validating the nutrition information. “Subsequent to that, the company now has a third party verify all of its products, whether they manufacture them themselves or whether they are produced by a third party,” says Smith.
“The company now verifies that because it’s important, obviously. We want it to be as accurate as possible, and want to provide accurate nutrient information to consumers.”
But not all companies have the capacity to ramp up testing and oversight.
In the case of Krispy Kernels, the company pays an external laboratory to test products before they’re launched to build the nutrition facts table. For its mixed nuts product, launched in 2001, the lab informed them that each serving size contained 90 per cent of the recommended daily value for iron.
After CFIA showed that its results with levels of 10.5 per cent, the company had the product analyzed by another lab. The iron value was similar to the CFIA’s value, so the packaging was changed.
“We rely on external sources when it comes to analyzing the nutritional value of our products. When we have a doubt or question the results, we try to compare our product with the market. When we realize the information is not accurate, we change our packaging accordingly,” says company spokeswoman Renee-Maude Jalbert.
Adel Boulos, vice-president of Montreal-based Amira Enterprises, says the dried fruit and nuts specialty company conducts nutrition-composition tests on some of its products, but with an offering of over 2,000 products, Amira has to rely on the results of its suppliers. It also draws on Health Canada’s guide for food companies on nutrition information for common foods and ingredients, and uses the “conservative” side of any range provided.
“We can’t test them all and we can’t test them all the time,” said Boulos, whose company was informed of CFIA tests showing that one product fell far short of its iron and vitamin A claims.
“What people have to understand is we’re not in the business to fool anybody. We just want to sell a quality product at a good price. That’s what we want to do.”