Nutrient fortification and label claims mismatched, finds food watchdog
minerals for the New Zealand market are under the spotlight as the
country's food watchdog takes a closer look at nutrient claims,
finding more than half of the foods tested did not meet the label
The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), as part of its annual monitoring work, commissions research to investigate fortification. More precisely, they look at the analytical levels of added nutrients in food versus the level stated in the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). "The studies help NZFSA undertake a robust risk assessment of the consequences of nutrient additions to foods, both mandatory and voluntary, and will feed directly into the food standard setting process," explained the authority. The food and beverage fortification market is enjoying strong year-on-year growth as the health-conscious consumer strives to seek solutions to health issues through food. But authorities are obviously keen to ensure that the consumer is not hoodwinked. Over the past three years, the New Zealand food watchdog has tested the nutrient levels for folic acid and iron, vitamin A, vitamin D and calcium, and most recently, vitamin C, zinc and selenium, across 260 samples of food and beverages from nine different food groups, including fruit drinks, baby food, bread and cereal. The last survey included selenium in infant formula for which the Food Standards Code specifies minimum and maximum levels. For the other nutrients the Food Standards Code specifies maximum claimable (average) levels only. But of the foods tested in the surveys, the food authority reports that more than half, almost 58 per cent did not meet the label claims; with 15 per cent containing less than the stated level of nutrient, and a considerable 42 per cent containing more than the label said. Many nutrients are not stable and levels may be affected by the production process, the shelf life of the product and the conditions in which the product is actually stored. "To compensate for any degrading that happens over time some manufacturers add more of particular nutrients," added the food watchdog. International evidence, continued NZFSA, suggests that actual levels can vary significantly by up to 320 per cent of the claimed value. "There is a potential public health and safety issue associated with over-consumption of some nutrients and interactions between nutrients if levels are too high," the authority stated. But calming any potential consumer concerns, NZFSA's assistant director (Joint Food Standards) Jenny Reid added: "The permitted claimable levels of the various nutrients have huge inbuilt safety margins." Commenting on the variations in nutrient levels, Reid added that labels are "not a blueprint of what someone is consuming on every occasion" and that variations in nutrient claims are expected "as the level of nutrient on the nutrition panel is based on an average." Rather than tell you exactly what nutrients you will get from eating a food on one occasion, the labels give you a picture of the nutrients you will get from routinely eating that particular product, she elaborated. As a whole, the authority stressed that results from the nutrient surveys need to be viewed in light of certain limitations inherent in an accurate reflection of the nutrients added to processed foods. NZFSA pointed out that such factors include, for production and processing, adding small amounts of nutrients to large volumes of product and obtaining uniform distribution throughout; and the need to cater for degradation of the nutrient during the shelf life of the product. With regards to sampling, all analytical methods have "associated uncertainty arising from sampling and the analytical methods used". Further, despite using "the best scientific methodology available some of the analytical tests are extremely complicated and do not provide consistently reliable results." And for storage, NZFSA underlined the fact that conditions and the general food matrix will affect the final nutrient content. Overall, though, the authority said it was 'confident' with the results, and found 'no issues of safety' for the consumer. The rules concerning the addition of vitamins and minerals to food have a "significant safety factor built in" and are "considered to be extremely conservative" allowing 15 to 50 per cent of the the recommended daily intake (RDI).