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Many sports foods—powders, bars and snacks, and ready-made shakes—sold in grocery stores, pharmacies, and health food stores are marketed as being healthy food for an active lifestyle, but they may not be as nutritious as they claim to be, with approximately a third being mislabelled, an in-depth investigation by Australian researchers has found.
PhD candidate Celeste Chapple from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) said an audit looking at the food labelling on the packaging of protein-based products, carbohydrate-based products, and other products like creatine and beta-alanine,
Among the 558 products captured in the audit, around 33 percent of products appeared to have incorrect nutritional information.
275 or less than half of the products displayed the correct warning and advisory statements as required in the food standards code by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.
Around a third of the sports foods, particularly protein bars, did not provide the correct energy value on the nutrition panel.
Products also made multiple claims of health benefits, with one product making 67 claims.
Being that claims include “regulated, minimally regulated and marketing statements,” the authors said the claims were likely to be incorrect or misleading.
“These findings suggest current labelling is misleading and deceptive. We need a complete overhaul of labelling for sports foods and restrictions placed on where these foods are sold to ensure consumers have the accurate information needed to make healthy choices,” Chapple said in a release.
Consumption of sports foods has increased dramatically over the past two decades.
“People might reasonably expect these foods to provide the energy and nutrients required to lead a fit and healthy lifestyle,” she said.
“The incorrect nutrient information suggests food manufacturers favour marketing statements on packaging over accurate nutrition information, which could result in consumers eating too much or not enough of particular nutrients/foods.
Sweeteners May Cause Gut Damage
“In addition to misleading nutrient information, almost all the sports foods surveyed included an artificial sweetener. Many products contained multiple artificial sweeteners, which we know can be harmful for some people,” she said.
Out of the nineteen different sweeteners identified in the study, the most prolific sweetener found in the products was stevia, a natural non-nutritive sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana, a shrub native to South America.
Although non-nutritive sweeteners are considered safe and well tolerated, there are observational research findings showing that the consumption of stevia may harm the human gut microbiome by disrupting bacterial communication.
“Food Standards Australia New Zealand is currently reviewing the standards for these foods since they were first published in 2001,” Chapple said.
“This review needs to recommend better regulation of labelling and tighter restrictions on where these foods can be sold.
“For example, age restrictions on products are harder to enforce when the product is sold in supermarkets, rather than chemists or health food stores.”
New Bill to Protect Australian Children from Unhealthy Food Advertising
The call for better regulations on sports foods comes as an independent Australian MP has introduced a new bill to stop junk food companies from targeting children with advertisements amid the prevalence of childhood obesity in the country.
MP Sophie Scamps, from Mackellar in New South Wales, tabled the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Healthy Kids Advertising) Bill 2023 to the Australian parliament in an effort to reduce the exposure of unhealthy food marketing to children.
Under the bill, food companies would not be allowed to advertise junk food from 6 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. on TV and radio broadcasts, while a total ban would be placed on social media and online websites.
Companies that violate the proposed legislation could face penalties of up to $550,000 (US$342,000) or up to five percent of their unhealthy food product turnover.
“Right now, a quarter of our children are already on the path to chronic disease because they are over the healthy weight range,” Scamps said.
“Our children are exposed to over 800 junk food ads on TV alone every year, and there is a direct link between those ads and childhood obesity.”
The bill does not target print or outdoor advertisements, sports sponsorships, or content shared by food and beverage companies on their channels.