‘No added sugars’ claims under scrutiny in The Netherlands
In a series of decisions, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (RCC) ruled against ‘no added sugars’ claims on products which were sweetened with date paste, apple juice concentrate and concentrated beet juice.
The claims were, however, allowed for products containing small quantities of sweetening ingredients such as concentrated apple juice and pear puree.
The complaints were filed by Foodwatch, a Dutch food industry watchdog and directed against nine products on sale in The Netherlands. All of the products claimed to contain no added sugars despite using other sweetening ingredients.
‘No added sugars’ is a nutrition claim according to the EU Regulation 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods (NHCR). It can only be used if no sugar or any other ingredient has been added for sweetening purposes. However, if a product contains naturally present sugars, it should include the relevant indication on the label: ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’.
In the cases at stake, the RCC ruled in favour of seven complaints due to the misleading character of the ‘no added sugars’ claims.
The guilty sweet makers
The complaints were upheld against the products (muesli, rinse apple syrup, strawberry candies and children’s biscuits) which were made with date paste, concentrated beet juice and apple juice concentrate. Although the manufacturers argued that these ingredients were used for texture and binding purposes only, the RCC considered that the claim ‘no added sugars’ is not compatible with the fact that an important part of the substantial sugar content of the products is caused by the addition of the aforementioned ingredients with sweetening power. The significant level of sweetness added to the products went therefore beyond the argument of bringing structural functionality only. The RCC concluded that the claims were therefore misleading and contrary to the requirements of the NHCR and the Dutch Advertising Code (Nederlandse Reclame Code). In its opinion, the consumers who buy products which claim to contain no added sugars should be able to trust the correctness of such statement.
The RCC also upheld complaints against products (double espresso, pressed tomato juice and mango salsa) claiming to contain no added sugars but which listed glucose and sugar in their lists of ingredients. In these cases, the RCC decided that the presence of the sugar and glucose in the products was incompatible with the requirements of the NHCR for the proper use of ‘no added sugars’ claim.
The manufacturers and retailers were recommended to remove the misleading claims from the packaging of the products as well as the websites where they were offered for sale.
A little sweeter is allowed
However, the RCC rejected two complaints filed by Foodwatch. One related to apple crunch cereal bar with concentrated apple juice and the other to ‘fruit squeezes’ for children with pear puree concentrate. For these two products, the manufacturers successfully argued that the added ingredients (concentrated apple juice and pear puree concentrate) were not used for sweetening purposes but for viscosity, binding moisture and preserving texture. The RCC considered that the conditions of the nutrition claim ‘no added sugars’ did not automatically prevent the addition of ingredients with sweetening power as long as this addition was made for reasons other than obtaining a sweeter product, taking into account its nature, composition and properties. In the opinion of the RCC, the addition of a limited amount of the apple juice concentrate (4%) and the pear puree concentrate (7,5%) did not detract from the nature, composition and properties of the products as the average consumer may expect based on the nutrition claim ‘no added sugars’ and the other information on the packaging and online. The RCC concluded that in these cases the claims were not misleading and therefore allowed.
Foodwatch has already announced its intention to appeal against the decisions.
Sugar reduction in the spotlight
Sugar reduction has recently been in the spotlight in The Netherlands. The National Prevention Agreement which was published in November 2018 stresses the need for lower sugar consumption and calls for, among others, a gradual reduction of sugar in soft drinks by 2025. Food business operators should therefore not only use nutrition claims carefully to avoid the consequences of non-compliance but also be keep an eye on the national policy developments on sugar.