Exposed: the supermarket foods whose health claims leave a bad taste

Now in its second year, the annual Bad Taste Food Awards run by Consumer NZ looks past the marketing hoopla to show some foods aren’t quite as harmless as they seem. Jihee Junn looks at this year’s (un)lucky winners.

‘Fat-free’ or ‘sugar-free’? ‘High in protein’ or ‘low in sodium’? Which is better? Which is worse? Food companies have long spruiked their products to seem healthier than they actually are, and while rules and guidelines now prevent outright lies like “7-Up is good for your baby!” or “Coca-Cola is helping you get fit!” (although you’d be surprised about the latter), words like ‘healthy’, ‘nutritious’ and ‘natural’ have become open to interpretation as marketing agencies shape these commercially branded items into whatever it is the consumers want most.

Last year, Consumer NZ launched the inaugural Bad Taste Food Awards (similar to Australia’s Shonkys) which called out everything from fruit-sparse muesli bars to nut-sparse almond milk. This year’s list once again calls out the worst offenders, looking past the marketing speak to show some foods aren’t quite as harmless as they seem.

Pump flavoured water

Pump Water Apple Flavoured (Nutritional Info via Countdown.co.nz)

A favourite for those who need a little extra pep to their daily liquid intake, Pump’s range of flavoured water boasts that it’s “low in sugar”. Except it turns out that a 750ml bottle actually contains around four teaspoons of sugar which – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – makes up two-thirds of an average adult’s recommended daily sugar intake.

The reason why Pump can say it’s “low in sugar” is because food standards in New Zealand and Australia say it can. If a drink has a sugar content of 2.5g or less per 100ml, it’s technically within its rights to make such a claim. And while 2.5g of sugar for something like a soft drink certainly qualifies it as a ‘healthier’ option seeing as a 100ml serving of Coca-Cola contains 10.6g of sugar, it’s a little concerning in the case of a water-based drink like Pump’s. Still, at least it’s not as bad as last year’s ‘enhanced water’ candidate OVI Hydration, which was found to contain 4g of sugar per 100ml while simultaneously boasting of its enriched antioxidants.

The moral of the story is if there’s anything other than water in your drink, be wary of what exactly it is you’re gulping down. If that’s too much thinking for you, then just opt for plain bottled water. Or better yet, try turning on a tap and saving yourself a few coins (and calories).

Sanitarium’s Up&Go breakfast drinks

Up&Go Vanilla Ice Flavour (Nutritional Info via Sanitarium.co.nz)

Protein! Fibre! Vitamins! Low GI! Up&Go’s packaging shouts all the right words, except for the fact that the average 250ml carton contains roughly 19g of sugar. Although the high sugar content has been common knowledge for quite some time now, which is probably why Sanitarium has also tried its hand at a reduced sugar alternative. Although if you’ve ever tried one, you’ll know the alternative tastes a lot like reconstituted gloop.

Even with the high sugar content, the original Up&Go still gets a 4.5 out of 5 health star rating which only adds to the consumer confusion. For anyone who’s looked at a cannister of Milo or a box of Nutri-Grain and been perplexed at their 4+ star ratings, this is because it takes into account each product’s overall nutritional value with some healthy benefits outweighing the unhealthy ones. For Milo, the large amounts of sugar it contains is ‘offset’ in the eyes of the health star rating by the nutritional benefits of skim milk (presuming you drink skim milk). For Up&Go, the high protein, energy and fibre content it claims to have would have caused its rating to skew upwards.

Anchor Protein+

Anchor Protein+ Plain Yoghurt (Nutritional info via Anchordairy.com)

Anchor’s Protein+ range includes milk, yoghurt and smoothie boosters that cost a little bit extra than your regular dairy products. But in turn, they boast a whole lot more protein than your usual blue top, with a 100ml serving of Protein+ milk containing almost twice as much protein as Anchor’s normal milk.

It’s why Anchor claims pretty confidently that its Protein+ range gives Kiwis “the strength to tackle whatever life throws their way”. But according to the latest New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey, 98% of adults already consume sufficient amounts of protein to meet their recommended daily intake, with some even getting more than double. So unless you have a serious protein deficiency, it’s highly likely that you already have the strength to tackle “whatever life throws your way” and that Anchor is simply doing what it does best – touting the pure, unadulterated “goodness of dairy” by trumpeting the sound of science.

With vegan, lactose-free and dairy-free lifestyles becoming increasingly on trend, companies like Fonterra have been fighting back against the anti-dairy sentiment with concerted brand campaigns which likely costs millions of dollars each year. The abundance of protein in milk-based products is Fonterra’s biggest slice of leverage against its competitors, which is why its marketing focuses so heavily on promoting it (even if we don’t really need more of it at all).

Mother Earth Vege Fruit Sticks + Nice & Natural Fruit Snacks

Mother Nature Vege Fruit Sticks

Veges! Fruits! Sticks! Judging by the keywords, these must be good for you.

Which they are, if all you care about is having “no artificial colours or flavours”. But if you’re going by sugar content, it’s important to note that there’s actually 5.1g of sugar per Mother Earth stick, which equates to just over one teaspoon of sugar.

For an adult, that’s not too bad considering we’re allowed around six teaspoons a day. But seeing as the product is primarily targeted at school-aged kids, and young children are only recommended to have roughly three to four teaspoons a day, parents might want to reconsider if this supposedly ‘healthy’ snack is worth their child’s calories.

In the same vein, Nice & Natural also appeals to the youth market with their fun animal-shapes. Presumably, the ‘fruit’ component is meant to ease the concerns of health-conscious parents searching for lunchbox fillers. But the jelly-like treat (first alarm bell) is essentially 60% sugar with each gummy serving of its fruit dinos containing 10.3g of sugar (aka a third of a young child’s recommended daily intake).

Both products employ similar marketing tactics as 2016 Bad Taste Food Award winner Heinz, whose Little Fruit and Veg Shredz actually got taken to court in Australia by the country’s Consumer Commission last year, complaining that its claim to be “99% fruit and veg” contradicts the reality that its products are more than 60% sugar.

Gourmet Salts

Mrs Rogers Himalayan Pink Salt

“A pure, unprocessed alternative to refined white salts… mined deep within the foothills of the Himalayas,” writes Mrs Rogers. “This is by far the purest salt available on earth and is absolutely uncontaminated with any toxins or pollutants,” boasts Findlay Foods. Which, by and large, sounds absolutely magical, seeing as it also claims to help with everything from sinus health to boosting your libido. Except like all magic, it’s not quite fantastical as it seems. Some manufacturers emphasise the array of healthy minerals in their products, but Consumer NZ warns that there are only small traces detectable and that all claims should be taken “with a grain of salt” (yes, very funny).

Pams Toasted Muesli + Countdown Toasted Muesli

Pams Toasted Muesli (Nutritional info via MyFitnessPal)

As people shun sucrose-laden cereal for more nutrient-rich alternatives, muesli is having its heyday as people flock to its nutty, fruity goodness.

Ideally, muesli should contain less than 15g of sugar per 100g, but both Foodstuffs’ and Progressives’ flagship brands failed to hit the mark. Pams’ Toasted Muesli was found to contain 30.3g of sugar per 100g, while Countdown’s Toasted Muesli had 18g. In fact, since the last time Consumer NZ looked into the products back in 2012, both Pams and Countdown have actually gotten worse in nutritional value, boasting a 44% and 20% increase in sugar content respectively.

At this rate, you might as well just ditch the muesli and go for a bowl of Coco Pops which has 36.5g of sugar per 100g — only 6.2g more than Pams’ sugary concoction. Bad news for muesli lovers all round.

Oki-Doki Marshy-Mallows + Betta Mallow Bakes

Oki Doki Marshy Mallows (Nutritional Info via universaltrade.co.nz)

If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. There’s no such thing as a healthy marshmallow, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs a refresher on Nutrition 101.

No much how much they shout that they’re ‘fat-free’ or ‘gluten-free’, sugar is always going to be the biggest culprit. For a 100g handful of Oki-Doki Marshy-Mallows, there’s a whopping 58.5g of sugar. And since a packet of Marshy-Mallows is about 400g, munching through just a quarter of a packet of these treats (as sometimes happens) equates to approximately 14 teaspoons of sugar – almost three times worth an adult’s recommended daily intake. It gets even worse when it comes to Betta, with a 100g packet of its Mallow Bakes containing around 64 grams of sugar (or around 15 teaspoons).

Lipton’s Ice Tea

Lipton Ice Tea Peach (Nutritional info via countdown.co.nz)

There’s nothing like the refreshing taste of a Lipton Ice Tea on a hot summer’s day: no preservatives, no artificial sweeteners, and no less than a massive serving of 26.4g of sugar per 500ml bottle. That’s just over six teaspoons of sugar, making up your entire intake for the day.

With the recent addition of a ‘light’ alternative to its range, Lipton is clearly taking lessons from Coca Cola with its (almost) calorie-free version containing less than 0.1g of sugar (but note that its chock full of artificial sweeteners like aspartame).


The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university, we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.