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Nutritional quality and labelling of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals: the contribution of the French observatory of food quality

Abstract

Background/Objectives:

To assess developments in the nutritional quality of food products in various food groups in France, an Observatory of Food Quality (Oqali) was created in 2008. To achieve its aims, Oqali built up a new database to describe each specific food item at the most detailed level, and also included economic parameters (market share and mean prices). The objective of this paper is to give a detailed analysis of the monitoring of the ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (RTEBCs) sector in order to show the benefits of the Oqali database.

Subjects/Methods:

Analysis was limited to products with nutritional information on labels. Packaging was provided by manufacturers or retailers, or obtained by buying products in regular stores. Economic parameters were obtained from surveys on French food consumption and data from consumer purchase panels. The breakfast cereal sector was divided into 10 categories and 5 types of brand. Oqali has developed anonymous indicators to describe product characteristics for each category of RTEBC and each type of brand by cross-referencing nutritional values with economic data. Packaging-related data were also analysed. The major nutritional parameters studied were energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre and sodium. Analysis was performed on the basis of descriptive statistics, multivariate statistics and a Kruskal–Wallis test.

Results:

For the RTEBC, there is large variability in nutrient content throughout the sector, both within and between product categories. There is no systematic relation between brand type and nutritional quality within each product category, and the proportion of brand type within each product category is different. Nutritional labels, claims and pictograms are widespread on packages but vary according to the type of brand.

Conclusions:

These findings form the basis for monitoring developments in the nutritional composition and packaging-related data for breakfast cereals in the future. The final objective is to expand the approach illustrated here to all food sectors progressively.

Background and objectives

Over the past few years, Public Health Authorities have become increasingly concerned about the evolution of the nutritional quality of processed food products. Indeed, studies carried out on processed foods, a major source of dietary nutrient intake, highlighted the necessity and feasibility of reformulation of many foods (Webster et al., 2010).

In France, several action plans have been established within the framework of the National Nutrition and Health Programme 2006–2010 (PNNS 2), which aims to influence the food supply and further encourages food companies to improve the nutritional characteristics of their products (French Ministry of Health, 2006). A priority measure was the implementation of a project aimed at assessing developments in the nutritional quality of food products for various groups of foods. In this context, an Observatory of Food Quality (Oqali) was created in 2008 by the French Authorities to monitor the changes related to nutrition and health in the food supply (i) by measuring differences and trends in the nutrient content of processed and packaged foodstuffs, and (ii) by assessing developments in the information and labelling provided by food firms. Oqali is financed and supervised by the French Ministries of Food/Agriculture, Health and Consumption, and its implementation is entrusted to INRA (the French National Institute for Agronomic Research) and Anses (French agency for food, environmental and occupational health safety). Until the creation of Oqali, the main database on food composition had been the Ciqual database, which provides mean values for generic foods for about 37 components (Ciqual, 2008). To achieve its aims, Oqali created a new database that differentiates itself from Ciqual in three ways: (i) it provides a description of each product (with a specific brand) available on the market at the most detailed level; (ii) it monitors the eight components of ‘group 2’ nutrition labelling as defined in amended Directive 90/496/EEC (European Commission, 2008): energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre and sodium; and (iii) it includes economic parameters such as market share and mean price.

The Observatory gathered data from several processed food sectors, notably ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (RTEBCs), biscuits and pastries, fresh dairy products, chocolate and chocolate-based products, stewed and canned fruits, crackers and cocktail biscuits, bread-based products and chilled prepared meals. About 15 000 items are available in the database. The final objective is to progressively expand this approach to all food sectors. The implementation of such a database provides opportunities for new approaches for monitoring the nutritional quality of the food supply, and enables the assessment of efforts made by the food chain to improve the nutritional quality of foodstuffs, thereby contributing to healthier food consumption behaviour.

The objective of this paper is to use RTEBC to show the benefits provided by the availability of the Oqali database. RTEBC were chosen as a priority food group to monitor because of the significant contribution of breakfast cereals to nutrient intakes in French adults (Bertrais et al., 2000) and the voluntary decision of the food industry to cooperate with Oqali.

Materials and methods

Data collection

Analysis of breakfast cereals was limited to products with nutritional information on labels. Breakfast cereal packaging was provided by manufacturers or retailers, or was obtained by purchasing products in regular stores. It should be noted that close cooperation with the food industry, which was formalised by the signing of agreements, facilitates the collection of information and has a key role in the validation of the methods used to aggregate and analyse data. Economic parameters, such as sales volume and mean price, were obtained from surveys on French food consumption (for example, the INCA 2 survey; AFSSA, 2006–2007), and data from consumer purchase panels (for example, TNS/Kantar Worldpanel; Kantar Worldpanel, 2010). These data are essential to assess the representativeness of the breakfast cereals market in the Oqali survey and to identify possible missing products that should be included to expand the market coverage.

The RTEBC sector is divided into 10 categories defined in collaboration with the food industry. It aims to include products with common characteristics in terms of technology used and/or ingredients. Five types of brand are considered: national brands (NBs); store brands, mid-range products; store brands, low-price products; discount brands, mid-range products; discount brands, low-price products.

Each product is described by many parameters, such as the commercial name (under which it is sold), brand, category, ingredient list, nutrient content, nutrition and health claims, bar code, serving size, photographs, market share and mean price.

Statistical analysis

Oqali has developed anonymous indicators to describe product characteristics for each category of breakfast cereals and each type of brand by cross-referencing nutritional values with economic data. Packaging-related data were also analysed. Data analysis was made for the entire sector and for each category and type of brand. Conclusions were drawn only when the number of products within each category was sufficient (minimum n=3). The major nutritional parameters studied were the eight components of ‘group 2’ nutrition labelling as defined in the amended Directive 90/496/EEC (European Commission, 2008): energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre and sodium.

Descriptive statistics, such as box plots, were used to summarise available data, to graphically depict groups of data and to display the degree of dispersion in the data. Multivariate statistics, such as linear discriminant analysis, were also used to test the relevance of the classification of the products into categories and to identify the nutrients that showed the highest degree of variability. Moreover, the quantities of nutrients provided by the RTEBC sector have been calculated for sugars, fat, fibre and sodium.

Finally, a Kruskal–Wallis test was used to determine whether there was a significant difference in the nutrient content between brand types in eight categories of breakfast cereals. The non-normality of the distribution of each nutrient tested for each category justifies the choice of the Kruskal–Wallis test. Furthermore, this method was chosen because more than two samples (five types of brands) had to be analysed.

Results

The RTEBC sector can make a considerable contribution to nutrient intake because of the large consumption of these foods in modern-day diets, particularly among children, adolescents and young adults. A number of studies conducted in various countries confirm the role of RTEBC in the daily nutrient intake of young people (van den Boom et al., 2006; Montenegro-Bethancourt et al., 2009) and adults (Bertrais et al., 2000; Galvin et al., 2003).

A total of 355 breakfast cereal items were collected in 2008, covering 75% of the French breakfast cereals market in terms of volume. Table 1 shows the categories considered in the study: the most represented were chocolate-flavoured cereals (19.2% of the data), light cereals (17.7%), honey/caramel sweet cereals (17.2%) and crunchy mueslis (16.9%); the remaining categories were oatflakes, cornflakes/other plain cereals, muesli flakes, fibre-rich cereals, whole wheat cereals (bitesize) and filled cereals. A comparison of the available data by brand type showed the following results: 39% of the data were related to store brands, mid-range products, 33% to NBs, 23% to discount brands, mid-range products, 4% to store brands, low-price products and 1% to discount brands, low-price products. The retailer and discount brands represented a higher proportion (67 and 66%, respectively, vs 54% for NBs) of ‘tasty’ cereals, including honey cereals, chocolate cereals, filled cereals and crunchy muesli, compared with the proportion of ‘healthy’ cereals, including light cereals and fibre-rich cereals, which is similar for the three types of brand (approximately 25%).

Table 1 Number of products per category of breakfast cereals and per brand type in 2008

Nutritional composition

Differences in nutritional composition are related to the classification into categories. The variability in nutritional composition observed between the product categories is first and foremost related to the fat content, then to the sugar content and finally to fibre content. In particular, crunchy muesli cereals are characterised by a higher fat content; filled cereals have higher contents of fat and sugars; honey/caramel sweet cereals have a lower fat content and a higher sugar content; light cereals are characterised by lower levels of fat and dietary fibre. Furthermore, within each product category there is a large variability in nutrient content. Figure 1 shows a large dispersion of fat content for the whole sector and compares the fat distribution between four categories of products. A large variability was found for crunchy muesli, as opposed to chocolate or honey cereals.

Figure 1
figure1

Fat distribution in the breakfast cereals sector and by-product categories (breakfast cereals sector n=355; honey cereals n=61; chocolate-flavoured cereals n=68; light cereals n=63; crunchy muesli n=60).

Figure 2 takes market share into account. It compares the proportions of sugar provided by each category of breakfast cereal with the respective market share. Chocolate-flavoured cereals and honey cereals account for 40% of the cereals market and provide 50% of the total volume of sugars contributed by the entire sector. Table 2 shows mean salt contents calculated with the Kruskal–Wallis test. The mean sodium content of NBs is significantly lower compared with other types of brand for two product categories (light cereals and crunchy muesli), and is significantly higher for filled cereals. The Kruskal–Wallis test was also used with other nutrients and other categories. Results show that within a product category there are differences in the nutritional composition, depending on the type of brand. However, these are isolated differences (related to a small number of products) and should not be considered as systematic (the classification of types of brand according to average nutrient content differs from one family to another).

Figure 2
figure2

Comparison between the total amounts (in tons) of sugar provided by ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (RTEBCs) and the market shares of each category of products of the RTEBCs.

Table 2 Food categories with significant differences in mean sodium content between brand types (α=5%)

Packaging-related data

Overall, in the RTEBC sector, 99% of the products carry a nutritional label, among which more than 80% carry an ‘extended group 2’ label providing information on energy, protein, carbohydrates, sugars, fat, saturated fat, fibre and sodium, as well as other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. However, the amount of detail found on labels varies between product categories; for example, crunchy muesli cereals have the least detailed labels (55% have an ‘extended group 2’ label), whereas 100% of fibre-rich cereals have an ‘extended group 2’ label.

Altogether, 62% of the products in this sector present at least one nutritional claim (as defined in the positive list of the annex to Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006; European Commission, 2006). The proportion is variable according to the category (ranging from 48% for crunchy mueslis to 85% for fibre-rich cereals) and type of brand (87% for NBs vs 47% for store brands-mid products and 61% for discount brands-mid products).

More than half (58%) of the products in the sector were enriched with vitamins and/or minerals. The proportion varied depending on the category, from 12.5% for oatflakes and muesli flakes to 97% for filled cereals. Cereals aimed at children (honey/caramel, chocolate-flavoured and filled cereals) and fibre-rich cereals are the most frequently enriched categories (at least 79% for each of these categories). The most commonly used nutrients for RTEBC fortification are B-vitamins (vitamins B1, B2, niacin, folic acid, B6 and B12) and iron (more than 92% of the data).

Focusing on the type of brand, results show that low-price products (store brands and discount brands) are different from other segments (NBs, and mid-range store brands and discount brands). Low-price products generally carry a group 1 label (as defined in amended Directive 90/496/EEC (European Commission, 2008): energy value, protein, carbohydrate and fat) (Figure 3), do not make any nutritional claims, do not have any pictograms and are not enriched with any vitamins or minerals.

Figure 3
figure3

Nutrition labelling on different brand types (total n=355 products) (national brands n=119, retailer brands n=140, retailer-brands/low-price products n=13, discount brands n=80, discount brands/low-price products n=3).

Discussion

The breakfast cereals report (Oqali, 2009), freely available on the Oqali website, indicates that nutrient values mainly differ according to the categories of foodstuffs. In addition, within each category, no systematic differences in nutrient values appear among types of brand, in contrast to the type and quantity of nutrition information provided on labels, which differs greatly. Indeed, breakfast cereals generally present a high proportion of nutrition information on packages. Regarding nutrition claims, these findings are supported by a study of nutrition and health claims in the Irish market (Lalor et al., 2010).

Other surveys have compared the nutritional quality of low-cost foods with that of branded goods. The results support the theory that, within a category, the nutrient composition of the ‘economy line’ products is similar to that of the equivalent branded products (Cooper and Nelson, 2003; Darmon et al., 2009). In addition, the less-detailed nutrition information on packaging for low-cost items has also been confirmed (Darmon et al., 2009). Nutritional quality of low-cost foods is also a priority for French public authorities, as the results of the annual epidemiological survey on overweight and obesity in France showed that obesity prevalence rates have been increasing faster in low-income classes compared with higher-income classes (Obépi-Roche, 2009).

Even though differences between brand types within each product category cannot be demonstrated at a nutritional level, considering the breakfast cereals group as a whole, their supply differs according to the type of brand. Indeed, the higher occurrence of ‘tasty’ cereals within the retailer own-brand and discount brand sector might increase the likelihood of shoppers of these brands choosing these products, which are nutritionally less favourable than other cereal categories.

To ensure reliable monitoring of the food supply, Oqali requires complete and accurate information. The first step consists of ensuring that the nomenclature and description of the data are precise and clearly defined in order to compare and match with data in other databases (Ireland and Møller, 2000). Another key consideration consists of identifying and quantifying the degree of uncertainty related to the data collected and to the type of processing performed. Although the use of nutritional labels on product packages is very common for breakfast cereals, it is difficult to rely entirely on these data. Indeed, the quality of the information provided varies according to the product: cereals may have a natural variability in their nutrient content (Burlingame et al., 2009) and the composition of the breakfast cereals depends on the recipe (Maras et al., 2009) and on the manufacturing processes. Moreover, nutritional labelling may be based on several data sources (manufacturer's analyses of the food, calculations from the recipes or estimations from reference food composition databases). Discrepancies are therefore possible between the declared value and the actual value.

From another standpoint, comprehensive analyses of nutritional composition are too expensive to be performed on a regular basis to update the information collected. Analytical data are also prone to problems with data variability. This could be due to different factors, such as the sample, sampling design and analytical method (Bhagwat et al., 2009; Castanheira et al., 2009).

In addition to data variability, many factors may be at the root of changes to the nutritional composition of food products or may have an impact on food innovation. European Commission regulations, national public policies (Young and Swinburn, 2002; Mancino et al., 2008; Ratnayake et al., 2009), consumer behaviours, cultural habits (Sanchez and Casilli, 2008) and voluntary initiatives undertaken by the food industry (Nijman et al., 2007) are examples of factors that can affect and improve the nutritional quality of foodstuffs.

Given this situation, methods are currently being developed to compare labelled nutritional values and analytical nutritional values. The aim of this work is to measure the reliability of the label data collected.

Conclusions

On the basis of the above-mentioned indicators, several key findings should be highlighted. There is a large variability in nutrient content within the RTEBC sector, both within and between each product category. There is no systematic relation between brand type and nutritional quality within each product category, but the proportion of each type of brand within each product category is different. Nutritional labels, claims and pictograms are widespread on packages but in a variable way according to the brand type.

These findings form the basis for monitoring developments in nutritional composition and packaging-related data provision for breakfast cereals in the future. The same survey will be conducted by Oqali for other food sectors; the objective is to progressively expand this approach to the entire food supply. The Observatory is developing a wide approach to food quality, which can provide an overall vision of each food sector and of the many interactions between its different facets, such as nutrition, labelling and types of brand, and provide tools to meet public health challenges.

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Correspondence to L G Soler.

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Goglia, R., Spiteri, M., Ménard, C. et al. Nutritional quality and labelling of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals: the contribution of the French observatory of food quality. Eur J Clin Nutr 64, S20–S25 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2010.205

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Keywords

  • nutritional composition
  • food supply
  • economic parameters
  • ready-to-eat breakfast cereals
  • nutritional labels

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