Test Achats carried out a survey on food products on Belgian supermarket shelves such as spreads, chocolate bars and cookies that claim to have no added sugar, and found that many contain sweeteners.
"This is in total contradiction with the applicable legislation and the unequivocal interpretation that is made by the FPS Public Health. Indeed, the claim 'no added sugars' cannot be affixed to a product containing a foodstuff, such as a sweetener, used for its sweetening property," it said.
The consumer association sent an official letter in December to the five manufacturers whose products claim to be sugar-free despite containing sweeteners: Sweet-switch, Damhert Nutrition, Canderel, Dukan, and Boerinneke.
Chocolate spread manufacturer Boerinneke and health food specialists Dukan and Damhert Nutrition use malitol to replace sugar while Sweet-Switch uses stevia.
Canderel blends the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame-k, adding erythritol as a bulking agent for its table-top sweeteners.
Test Achats said that Boerinneke, Dukan and Damhert Nutrition responded almost immediately saying they would change the products’ packaging to bring them in line with the legislation.
Canderel initially contested Test Achats’ complaint but then said it was “considering how [it] can adjust [its] labels to respond to comments".
Sweet-Switch, however, has contested Test Achats, prompting the consumer association to file an official complaint against the manufacturer of stevia-sweetened sweets, chocolate, biscuits and spreads to the Belgian Federal Public Service for Health, Food Safety and the Environment.
What claims can manufacturers legally make?
In Europe, manufacturers may only make health and nutrition claims on food, beverage and nutrition products if they have undergone a scientific evaluation and been approved by the Commission.
Claims around sugar content must adhere to the rules below.
LOW SUGAR: A claim that a food is low in sugars, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product
contains no more than 5 g of sugars per 100 g for solids or 2,5 g of sugars per 100 ml for liquids.
SUGAR-FREE: A claim that a food is sugars-free, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains no more than 0,5 g of sugars per 100 g or 100 ml.
WITH NO ADDED SUGAR: A claim stating that sugars have not been added to a food, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product does not contain any added mono- or disaccharides or any other food used for its sweetening properties. If sugars are naturally present in the food, the following indication should also appear on the label: 'Contains naturally occurring sugars'.
'The solution is to make foods taste less sweet'
According to Test Achats, “the solution to the problem of overconsumption of sugar is not to replace sugar with sweeteners, or other sweetening ingredients - without calling into question their usefulness in the context of diabetes - while adding illegal claims to the products which make them look healthier than they actually are.
“The solution lies in a gradual decrease by manufacturers of the sugar content of their products, so that everyone gets used to a less sweet taste.”
Some manufacturers are already doing this, the consumer association said. It praised them for “this first step in the right direction”.