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Open Access Research article

Food products qualifying for and carrying front-of-pack symbols: a cross-sectional study examining a manufacturer led and a non-profit organization led program

Teri E Emrich1, Joanna E Cohen23, Wendy Y Lou3 and Mary R L’Abbé1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Nutritional Sciences, FitzGerald Building, University of Toronto, 150 College Street, Toronto, Canada

2 Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2213 McElderry Street, Baltimore, USA

3 Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, 155 College Street, Toronto, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:846  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-846

Published: 13 September 2013

Abstract

Background

Concern has been raised that the coexistence of multiple front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition rating systems in a marketplace may mislead consumers into believing that a specific food with a FOP is ‘healthier’ than foods without the symbol. Eleven summary indicator FOP systems are in use in Canada, including one non-profit developed system, the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check™, and ten manufacturer-developed systems, like Kraft’s Sensible Solutions™. This study evaluated FOP’s potential to mislead consumers by comparing the number of products qualifying to carry a given FOP symbol to the number of products that actually carry the symbol.

Methods

The nutritional criteria for the Health Check™ and the Sensible Solutions™ systems were applied to a 2010–2011 Canadian national database of packaged food products. The proportion of foods qualifying for a given FOP system was compared to the proportion carrying the symbol using McNemar’s test.

Results

Criteria were available to categorize 7503 and 3009 of the 10,487 foods in the database under Health Check™ and Sensible Solutions™, respectively. Overall 45% of the foods belonging to a Health Check™ category qualified for Health Check’s™ symbol, while only 7.5% of the foods carried the symbol. Up to 79.1% of the foods belonging to a Sensible Solutions™, category qualified for Sensible Solutions’s™ symbol while only 4.1% of the foods carried the symbol. The level of agreement between products qualifying for and carrying FOP systems was poor to moderate in the majority of food categories for both systems. More than 75% of the products in 24 of the 85 Health Check™ subcategories and 9 of 11 Sensible Solution™ categories/subcategories qualified for their respective symbols based on their nutritional composition.

Conclusions

FOP systems as they are currently applied are not, in most instances, a useful guide to identifying healthier food products in the supermarket as many more products qualify for these systems than the number of products actually displaying these symbols on FOP, and the level of agreement between qualifying and carrying products is poor to moderate. The adoption of a single, standardized FOP system would assure consumers that all products meeting certain nutritional standards are designated by the symbol.

Keywords:
Nutrition labelling; Front-of-pack nutrition rating systems; Nutrient criteria