10 misleading food product labels in Canada

A CBC Marketplace investigation reveals the Top 10 lousy labels in the grocery store, products which make supposed health claims that aren't always supported by the medical and nutritional evidence.

Marketplace investigation reveals dubious health and nutrition claims

A number of companies tout the supposed health benefits of their food products but the claims don't resonate with nutrition and medical experts, a CBC Marketplace investigation has revealed.

Package labelling often promotes "all-natural" ingredients or the presence of valuable nutrients and minerals. Alternatively, companies often focus on the absence of preservatives and substances linked to serious illnesses and diseases.

Others suggest consumers will become smarter or healthier, including providing a nutritional or immunity boost, as a result of using the products.

Marketplace contacted a doctor who specializes in healthy eating, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, to examine a number of claims found on the labelling of food products and created a Top 10 list of lousy labels, packaging that might have consumers shelling out cash for little or no benefit.

1. Maple Leaf Foods' Natural Selections

Maple Leaf Foods offers its Natural Selections line of deli meat products as having "no added preservatives" when in fact it contains nitrite — a preservative that may be linked to cancer according to the Canadian Cancer Society — in the form of cultured celery extract.

When asked about the packaging, the company denied that it was being misleading.

"We care deeply about the integrity of the products that we produce and the labelling is accurate," said Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods.

However, this week the company informed Marketplace that it would include a reference on Natural Selections packaging to say that it does contain nitrite.

2. Danone's DanActive

Danone promotes this product as a "daily pick-me-up probiotic drink to help strengthen your natural defences." However, it found a place on Marketplace's lousy labels list for saying its claims were "scientifically proven."

The company was forced to pay a $21-million settlement in the U.S. for claiming that it prevents colds and flu without any proof.

Marketplace also learned that Danone didn't get approval from Canadian regulators to make similar claims here.

3. Carnation Breakfast Essentials

Carnation Breakfast Essentials is promoted as a healthy morning drink which is loaded with vitamins and minerals but it contains 38 grams of sugar, which warranted a third-place position on Marketplace's lousy labels list.

The company that makes the drink, Nestle, defended its product, saying it provides "a good breakfast choice with energy, protein and other nutrients for the often rushed and on-the-go consumer."

4. Oasis Health Break CholestPrevent juice

This product contains references to its health claims all over its packaging and used to contain a line implying that drinking two glasses of juice was equivalent to eating 80 oranges or 22 kilograms of broccoli. 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently asked the company to take that claim off its packaging.

Companies are allowed to add plant sterols to juice and make a cholesterol claim.

In a statement to Marketplace the company that makes the juice, Lassonde, said its juice is "intended for people who are concerned about their cholesterol level or have a family history of this condition."

However, to gain the required health benefits a person needs to drink two glasses every day, which works out to more than 1.5 kilograms of sugar every month.

"If you’re worried about your cholesterol, I’m not sure that taking your medicine with sugar is a wise plan," Freedhoff said.

5. McCain Pizza Pockets

McCain Foods has recently reframed its Pizza Pockets as a healthy food option, pointing to the fact they are baked instead of fried and made with "wholesome ingredients that contain no artificial colours or flavors," according to its website.

However, one Pizza Pocket contains 11 grams of fat, which is more than a Boston cream doughnut, and 470 milligrams of sodium, more than a large serving of French fries at a fast food restaurant.

When asked why it promotes Pizza Pockets as wholesome, McCain said "consumers told us they wanted food made with real ingredients that are recognizable and pronounceable."

6. Praeventia cookies from Leclerc

These heart-shaped cookies from Leclerc, which the company says are a tasty, nutritious snack, made it onto the Marketplace lousy labels list for touting the benefits of antioxidants, which have dubious medical benefits according to Freedhoff. And because the product name — Praeventia — implies that the cookies prevent disease.

"We run the risk of people thinking that now they can eat as many cookies as they want because here, these are healthy cookies," he said.

However, the company said Health Canada allowed the product on the market because the "information was true and not misleading."

7. Kraft Canada Inc.'s KD Smart

There is a more expensive version of the popular macaroni and cheese product that is supposedly healthier and has "no artificial flavors, colours or preservatives." The line of KD Smart products includes an omega-3 option, which Kraft promotes as a way to get the fatty acid that has been linked to brain and heart benefits. 

But that last claim didn't check out with the Marketplace investigation.

"The studies on omega-3 show that there is benefit to the consumption of fish-based omega-3, but those same studies show that there’s not the same benefit with the plant-based stuff," Freedhoff said.

Accordingly, a person would have to eat approximately 177 servings of KD Smart to ingest the same amount of omega-3 found in just a single piece of fish.

Kraft said its KD Smart was "simply another way for moms to get some omega-3 into their family's diet."

8. Wonder Plus White Loaf With Fibre

The iconic bread company touts a special product line which "provides Canadian families with the taste and softness they love plus added fibre and the nutrition they need."

However, the White Loaf With Fibre product from Wonder Plus has a label that may go too far in terms of promoting its nutritional qualities, Marketplace discovered. The bread actually contains the ground-up hulls of whole oats only.

Weston Bakeries Ltd., which creates the bread, had this to say when informed it had been selected for Marketplace's lousy labels list: "Oat hull fibre adds fibre to bread. We agree … that it does not have the same nutritional benefit of whole grains." 

9. Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars

Kellogg's found a place on the Marketplace lousy labels list for its Nutri-Grain bars. The company promotes the health benefits of its cereal bars by making reference to a "golden baked crust of wheat and whole grains mixed with a variety of fillings made with real fruit" on its website.

However, each bar contains more than 12 grams of sugar, which certainly adds up if it is eaten every day. And the first ingredient, listed by weight, is regular, white flour.

When Marketplace called to ask about the Nutri-Grain products, the company simply stated that "nutrition has been the driving force behind Kellogg's since its founding in 1906."

10. Campbell's Healthy Request soup

The popular company has a special line of healthy soups that contain whole grains and vegetables, along with a label that says the product contains 25 per cent less sodium compared to other soups.

However, Campbell's Healthy Request soup uses two-thirds of the 398-millilitre container for its serving size. If a person were to eat the whole container they would ingest 750 milligrams of sodium, or more than half the daily recommended amount, Freedhoff said.

"The amount Canadians choose to eat will vary depending on their individual lifestyle and dietary needs," the company said.