Devon Probe Casts Doubt On Vegetarian Food Claims

BRITAIN’S vegetarian food industry is being urged to tighten up on the claims made in its labelling, following serious concerns raised by a new survey carried out by Devon County Council Trading Standards officers.

There are an estimated three million vegetarians in Britain and the food industry expanding to meet their needs is projected to be worth more than 300 million this year.

Revelations that the nutritional content claimed for certain vegetarian products did not bear up under analysis by Devon’s officers has prompted a recommendation for changes in food legislation.

The Devon investigation was sparked by a complaint from a consumer about soya “milk”. She was using it as an alternative to cows’ milk for her son, who was lactose intolerant, believing a product labelled as a “healthy alternative to milk” would contain all the goodness of milk. However, she became concerned that it might not contain as much calcium.

A survey of six soya “milks” by Devon Trading Standards Officers showed that calcium levels for these “nutritious health drinks” were on average 83 per cent less than found in cows’ milk. One sample, which was labelled as “calcium enriched”, was found to have 59 per cent less calcium than claimed on the label. Given that adults would normally gain 62 per cent of their dietary calcium from milk and milk products, it is vital for those using non-dairy alternatives that calcium contents are accurately described.

The Devon research indicates that consumers may not be able to achieve the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium by using a non-calcium enriched soya drink, unless they were particularly careful to include other good sources in their diet.

Councillor Fred Symons, Chairman of Devon’s Community Safety Sub-Committee, said: “People normally get over half their calcium intake from milk and milk products. Some have turned to calcium-enriched soya ‘milk’. I am, therefore, deeply disturbed by these findings and particularly worried to discover that in some cases consumers cannot rely upon the accuracy of the labelling. The advice from our officers to vegetarians who use soya ‘milk’ is to ensure that their diet has an adequate supply of calcium.”

Trading Standards officers found that labels for soya “milks” routinely claimed levels of energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat similar to cows’ milk. However, analysis showed that, in general, these drinks provided markedly less nutritional value than stated. Five of the six drinks analysed had over-estimated the protein content and under-estimated the carbohydrate content. One sample was found have 28 per cent less protein than claimed. Another, unsweetened variety, had 51 per cent more carbohydrate content than stated.

While the excess carbohydrate would balance the lack of protein in terms of overall energy value, if the carbohydrate was predominantly in the form of sugars and not starches this may lead to problems for diabetics and children’s teeth if large quantities are drunk.

Devon’s Trading Standards Officers also analysed other vegetarian products, such as vegetarian sausages and burgers, which consumers might reasonably expect to have an equivalent nutritional value to their meat counterparts.

An analysis of 20 different products showed the vegetarian alternatives to be very different indeed. The protein was always less than declared on the label and the carbohydrate always more – 500% more in the case of one pack of vegetarian burgers.

Whilst protein deficiencies are extremely rare in Western society, these results may be significant in a small number of adults who also consume non-dairy alternatives to milk and are therefore obtaining less protein from both sources.

Roger Rivett, Devon Trading Standards’ General Manager, said: “These findings are by no means comprehensive and for that reason it would be clearly unfair at this stage to start singling out products and manufacturers. However, there is sufficient evidence from this initial research to indicate that vegetarians are not always being given accurate information about the nutritional content of the food they consume.

“The reasons for these wide discrepancies are so far unclear. One possible explanation is that nutrition information can use average values and, with a natural ingredient, seasonal differences may occur. However, such enormous margins of error are clearly unacceptable for consumers, whatever the reason.

“For vegetarians this is particularly concerning. A vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients and energy needed for body growth and maintenance. However, in order to secure a well balanced diet, vegetarians need to reassure themselves that nutritional content is adequate and appropriate to their needs.

“Manufacturers need to be more accurate in their labelling. The use of traditional non-vegetarian names such as burger, sausage or milk in vegetarian products infers an equivalent nutritional value which can prove misleading.

“It is also clear from the composition of these products that some manufacturers are having problems giving correct information about their nutritional value.

“We will be carrying out further sampling to evaluate what additional action may be necessary. The report also recommends that the findings be forwarded to the Local Government Association, seeking its support in lobbying for changes to current food laws which will aim to ensure:

1. that vegetarian products which make reference to an equivalent non-vegetarian food should at least be equivalent in nutritional terms, or have a descriptive name applied which would more accurately relate to the true nature of the food; and

2. that the nutritional labelling is reliable, clear and meaningfully labelled in a consistent way, for example by relating the figures given to the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).