This study assessed the prevalence and compliance of nutrition claims on prepackaged pita bread.
The prevalence of nutrition and health claims found in this study was much higher than that reported in many countries such as Canada. UK Slovenia Serbia Ireland and five other European countries . Moreover, the prevalence was higher than that of a previous study conducted in Lebanon, where out of 148 pita breads collected in Mount Lebanon in 2017, 65.5% had at least one claim, 40.5% had a nutritional claim and 16.9% had a health claim. . This showed that the use of nutrition claims doubled between 2017 and 2018 and the use of health claims increased 1.7 times. The wide variability between the prevalence of claims in these studies could be due to the year the research was conducted, since the use of these claims and the publication of relevant regulations are very recent. .
Additionally, this study showed a higher prevalence of claims on functional and unconventional bread compared to white bread, consistent with the literature. . Thus, in pita bread as well as other food categories, the highest prevalence of claims is found on products made with functional ingredients such as whole grains, oats, quinoa and bran. This can be explained by the fact that consumers who usually buy such products are less price sensitive than other consumers and are more concerned about product safety. .
Additionally, among nutrition claims, the observed prevalence of nutrient content claims was higher than that reported for pre-packaged food products in several countries. [35, 39,40,41]. The increase in the use of claims in Lebanon, as well as the high prevalence of nutrition claims compared to health claims observed in all other countries, could be explained by the lack of government oversight and inappropriate regulations. [7, 42]. Additionally, manufacturers could benefit from using claims as a powerful marketing tool given its effect of influencing consumer choice, leading to increased sales. . Indeed, in Lebanon, consumers are strongly influenced by point-of-sale complaints, particularly in the case of bread where 49.8% of consumers (not= 400) rely on complaints when buying bread .
Consistent with our findings, in Australia the most common nutrient claim used on bread was ‘low in sugar’, followed by the claim ‘a source of dietary fibre’. . Similarly, a previous study on pita bread collected between 2017 and 2018 in Mount Lebanon found that the main nutrition claims were mainly related to sugar, salt and fiber, and that no-addition claims were used on all white breads. . Moreover, the results of the present study showed that many claims were related to the absence of preservatives which are perceived as an unrecognized personal and social risk.  and are considered harmful to health . As a result, bakeries are insisting on the use of “no preservative” or “no added preservative” claims to address growing consumer concern. . In fact, based on LIBNOR the only additives allowed in pita bread are the preservatives sodium propionate and calcium propionate, both of which have antifungal and antimicrobial properties, with no effect on yeast .
In the current study, half of the pita bread samples did not meet LIBNOR standard requirements  and CODEX  which require the display of nutrition facts panels on all pre-packaged foods. Similarly, non-compliance with this requirement was observed in Malawi . Nutritional information is used by some consumers to make product selections appropriate to their health status, so it must be displayed on the packaging. . Additionally, carrying a nutrition facts panel will lend more credibility to the claim and improve the manufacturer’s ability to compete. .
Different nutrients have been rated based on the Nutrition Facts table. The highest fiber content attributed to unconventional bread is mainly due to the use of composite flours and grains like quinoa, oats and wheat bran which are high in fiber. [49,50,51]. These breads are recommended for consumers looking to prevent or alleviate certain conditions such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, obesity, constipation and colon cancer. [52, 53].
Additionally, our results for sugar content are consistent with other studies reporting lower sugar content in whole-grain breads compared to other bread loaves. . Sugar is used in several types of bread, and high levels can be added to white and brown breads as it improves fermentation and sensory characteristics like flavor and color. [9, 54, 55]. Regarding sodium assessment, as in our results, higher values of sodium in white bread were reported in Lebanon. . Similarly, in Australia, white bread was highest in sodium compared to whole grains and gluten-free. . As for protein content, similarly, other studies have reported higher protein concentrations in whole-grain breads compared to white bread. . The high protein levels recorded in unconventional breads may be the result of using soy flour which contains up to 45% protein. .
Amid this high prevalence of nutrition claims, their credibility and compliance with standards becomes critical. Results using both Nutrition Facts panels and nutrient analysis showed low compliance for salt, fiber and sugar claims, in contrast to high compliance for protein claims. However, among the minority of compliant claims, the most credible claims were ‘source of fibre’, ‘source of protein’ and ‘low in sugar’, which is consistent with the literature. [9, 13, 57].
Contrary to our findings on salt claims, a recent study analyzing bread samples (not= 48) reported an average sodium content of 127 mg.100 g−1 in breads labeled “low in salt”, and the absence of sodium in breads labeled “no salt”, indicating the credibility of these claims . However, studies in Slovenia and Australia have reported less compliance with salt claims [9, 10]. Several studies reported In Lebanon, 38.3% and 7% of buyers examine the sodium content of products in general and pita bread respectively . Therefore, such mislabeling can put people’s health at risk, especially when bread is the main contributor of salt in the diet and salt reduction initiatives have been carried out to reduce and prevent non-communicable diseases. . [16, 59].
Similarly, the high prevalence of fraudulent claims related to sugar content could seriously affect people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes; especially in Lebanon where the latter ranks fourth among the main causes of death . In addition, as bread naturally contains sugar, it is suggested that the “sugar-free” claims be replaced by “no added sugars”. It is virtually impossible to differentiate free sugar from added sugar using chemical analysis. It is recommended that information on the amounts of intrinsic and added sugars be provided in the Nutrition Facts panel, similar to the approaches followed by the United States.
In Lebanon, fiber claims rank #1 in nutrient content claims that people actively look for when shopping . However, the high prevalence of fraudulent fiber claims found on bread raises concerns for consumers looking to increase their fiber intake due to critical health conditions like diverticulosis, constipation or type 2 diabetes. . Another impact of this mislabeling is that bread, with functional ingredients like added fiber, is generally more expensive, therefore consumers pay more for these products.
The protein claims showed 100% compliance, which can be explained by the appropriate formulation of these products, i.e. the use of protein-rich components such as soy flour, bran and quinoa, as indicated in the ingredient lists.
Of the “cholesterol-free” claims, 91.7% of the claims were accurate. It is important to emphasize that the standard recipe adopted by all bakeries in Mount Lebanon is based exclusively on plant-based ingredients (flour, salt, yeast, sugar and water) which are cholesterol-free. [48, 61]. Thus, while “cholesterol-free” claims on pre-packaged pita bread may be considered credible based on the eligibility criteria, their presence is considered misleading and purely displayed for marketing purposes, as the product will be perceived as a healthier option. In order to be more credible with consumers, it is suggested that “cholesterol-free” statements be removed from prepackaged pita breads, or replaced with more truthful statements such as “naturally cholesterol-free.”
As in many other low- and middle-income countries, in Lebanon the labeling of literacy is low. In 2017, Hassan and Dimassi reported that Lebanese buyers (not= 748) had low knowledge of reading and using food labels. Therefore, food manufacturers can easily take advantage of consumers’ ignorance. Therefore, appropriate regulations in these countries are necessary for consumer protection.
Finally, the results of the Lebanese bread identity standards showed poor compliance highlighting the need for bakeries to reassess the crude fiber content, as their non-compliance with the identity standard requires changing the product name.
This study has potential limitations, as the results reported are not representative of all food product claims, as only one food category was assessed. However, bread was assessed because it is a Lebanese staple that is likely to have a high prevalence of claims. Therefore, the issues reported in this study may also occur in other food categories. Moreover, the bread was only collected from bakeries located in Mount Lebanon and did not cover the other governorates. However, most of these bakeries have several branches across Lebanon and sell their products in large supermarkets. Thus, it can be assumed that the results were sufficient to highlight the misuse of the claims and the need for control and monitoring.
On the other hand, this study is the first audit carried out on staple foods in the country and covering multiple nutrients.