Food and drink makers will no longer be able to make health claims such as "low in fat" or "good for bones" without scientific evidence, as the Government pushes ahead with plans to crack down on misleading or reckless marketing of products.
Under changes signed off by Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye yesterday, producers can not claim health or nutritional value on their labels unless they meet standards set by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
The change is designed to help consumers to pick healthy foods from shelves, and is expected to prevent many companies from making dubious or misleading claims about a product's benefits. It will affect brands which promote nutritional benefits ("low fat") or products that make health claims ("rich in calcium for strong bones").
The standards were welcomed by manufacturers, but some groups felt the rules would still let makers of sugary, salty foods off the hook.
Under the new system, the only health claims allowed will be 200 pre-approved standards. For example, a product which is branded as "low in salt" will have to meet a standard of less than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
Products will be given an overall "nutrition profile score" which takes into account a range of nutritional factors, not just isolated benefits.
Ms Kaye suggested that a toasted muesli brand, while high in fat, would be able to make health claims because it is high in protein, fibre and fruit. On the other hand, potato chip makers were unlikely to be able to make health claims because their products are high in fat and sodium.
Companies have three years to comply with the standards.
After that, companies which do not follow the rules could be fined under legislation now before Parliament.
Nutrition Connection dietician Anna Sloan said many consumers were aware of their own particular health needs, and specific claims would help them to make decisions regarding these health concerns.
"However, no manufacturer is going to say, "high in calcium ... but also high in saturated fat", so there is a danger that the positive aspect may be used to sell a product, without giving the full picture."
Green Party food safety spokeswoman Mojo Mathers said the standards were a step in the right direction, but they fell short because they did not identify foods that were high in added sugar, fats and salt.
"Industry resists any scheme that identifies foods that are bad for people's health, but if we are serious about improving health outcomes, that is what we need."
Ms Kaye stressed that the standards were to ensure that health claims were accurate. The next step would be working out how to present that information on the label.
The ministry is considering a voluntary system ranking products by stars - the more stars, the healthier.
Food manufacturer Sanitarium has lobbied for a "traffic light" labelling system like that used in Britain, which grades products' salt, sugar, and fat levels by ranking each with a red, amber, or green light.
Ms Kaye said that system would have unintended consequences, such as making fizzy drinks appear healthier than milk - a claim previously made by the Food and Grocery Council.
Council spokeswoman Katherine Rich has said that because fizzy drinks are low in fat, saturated fat and and sodium, they would receive three green lights and a red light for sugar, while milk received three orange lights and a green light.