A challenge from the UK Food Commission accusing the food group HJ Heinz of misleading consumers about the '5-a-day' programme has broadly failed to win the support of the UK Advertising Standards Agency.
The Food Commission focused on three adverts for Heinz canned food products - tomato soup, baked beans in tomato sauce and spaghetti in tomato sauce - all of which the company claimed could contribute towards the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables when eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
The Commission claimed that the advertisements misleadingly implied that the fruit and vegetables in the canned products were healthy and equivalent to fresh fruit and vegetables, because it believed they in fact contained relatively high levels of added sugar, fat and salt that could be detrimental to health.
It also criticised the statement 'contributes towards your recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables' for implying that official dietary recommendations included composite foods such as the advertised products. Furthermore, it complained that the advert for tomato soup suggested that one serving counted as two portions of the recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables.
In its defence, Heinz said that its 5-a-day initiative was based on a World Health Organization (WHO) report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases which recommended the consumption of at least 400g of fruit and vegetables a day, and that the ad campaign was developed in collaboration with the British Dietetic Association (BDA) after several months of consumer research.
In what will undoubtedly be seen as a victory for canned food producers - and ultimately a benefit to consumers who now have a far wider range of products to choose from than simply fresh fruit and vegetables in order to meet the 5-a-day target - the ASA overruled the Commission's claims, and agreed with Heinz that there was sufficient evidence to show that the canned products were not unhealthy and contributed towards the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Heinz cited the UK Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and the BDA, among others, all of whom have stated that frozen, canned, juiced, dried and fresh fruit and vegetables counted as portions. Although it agreed that the nutritional values of fresh and cooked foods could differ was recognised, it also stressed that many foods, such as beans, needed to be cooked for digestion and maintained that the antioxidant lycopene, found in tomatoes, was more bioavailable after cooking.
The ASA pointed out that the advertised products contained added sugar and added salt, but that only the tomato soup contained added fat. It also said that the levels of added sugar and added fat in each product were well within the daily intake guideline levels, but that the level of salt in a portion of each of the three products varied according to the product and represented between 35 per cent and 51 per cent of the recommended maximum intake for a woman and between 26 per cent and 36 per cent for a man.
But it also said that consumers would understand the fruit and vegetables in the advertised products had been processed, contained ingredients not present in fresh fruit and vegetables and were not equivalent to fresh fruit and vegetables in every respect. Nonetheless, it also considered that, in the context of the five-a-day message, to suggest that the advertised products were equivalent to fresh fruit and vegetables was acceptable, since consumers would understand that consumption of the canned foods should form only part of a varied and healthy, balanced diet.
Heinz also listed several examples of official guidance that endorsed the use of cooked and composite foods to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables, pointing out that no official guidance stated that composite foods could not have an important role as part of a healthy balanced diet. The ASA agreed, saying that the UK Department of Health itself had included canned and processed foods in its guidelines for foods that contributed towards five-a-day, as long as they were eaten in moderation if high in added fat, salt and sugar.
But the ASA did agree with the Food Commission on the question of whether the canned tomato soup could count towards two portions of fruit and vegetables, despite Heinz's claims that the reconstituted fruit and vegetable content of its tomato soup equated to at least two portions. Heinz also said that no official guidance existed that stated that tomatoes should count only once, but the ASA disagreed, citing new DoH guidelines (issued after the adverts appeared) which said that tomato puree could count only once per day, even if more than one portion was consumed.
The ASA considered, therefore, that the advertisement implied that a can of Heinz tomato soup counted as two portions of the recommended daily five portions of fruit and vegetables and that, despite the increased bioavailability of lycopene in processed tomatoes, this exaggerated the contribution of the advertised product as part of a healthy, balanced diet.