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31 Samples of Dried Fruit All Found to be High in Sugar Not to Substitute Fresh Fruit Over 40% Detected with 3 Types of Pesticides or More with Potential Risk of Cocktail Effect

  • 2021.08.16

Dried fruit is a convenient snack option processed from natural fruit. Not only do many people regard it as a healthy treat, some even use it as a substitute for fresh fruit. However, the Consumer Council tested 31 samples of prepackaged dried fruits and found that all samples’ sugar content reached the reference level for “high sugar” foods, with the average sugar content of the raisin category being the highest and that of dried apricots being the lowest. The Council reminds consumers that owing to the lower satiety and smaller volume of dried fruit compared with fresh fruit, consumers may overconsume unintentionally, leading to excessive sugar and calorie intake, and increased risks of obesity.

Besides, over 40% (14) of the samples were detected with at least 3 types of pesticides, amongst which 4 samples were found to contain 10 types or more. The combination of pesticides may cause the synergistic “cocktail effect” that may lead to health risks. The Council anticipates that the industry could engage raw material providers adopting Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). GAPs include the use of physical pest control measures in the first place, so as to reduce chemical pest control such as pesticides, as a result safeguarding food safety for consumers as well as lowering the impact to the environment.

31 samples of prepackaged dried fruits were tested, including 5 apricot, 5 blueberry, 4 cranberry, 4 mango, 10 raisin and 3 strawberry samples, with prices ranging from around $9 to $200 per pack. Based on the unit price per 100g, the highest priced was a sample of dried strawberries ($173.5) whereas the lowest priced was a sample of raisins ($1.6); the highest and lowest priced samples showed a considerable price difference. Test items included the levels of mycotoxins, preservatives, pesticide residue, sugars and polyphenols, while the labelling information of the samples was also inspected.

As dried fruit is made from fresh fruit, it contains natural sugars. In the manufacturing process, the water content of the fruit is extracted, resulting in an increased concentration of fructose and a higher ratio of sugar content. All 31 samples were found to contain sugar contents that reached the reference level for “high sugar” foods (more than 15g sugar per 100g sample), with sugar contents ranging from 20.7g to 78.7g per 100g sample. Taking the sample of dried strawberries with the highest sugar content as an example, consuming 1 portion (40g) would provide a sugar intake of 31.5g, equivalent to 126kcal. Assuming that a 60kg adult could burn approximately 70kcal per kilometre walked (around 20 minutes) at a pace of 3km/hr, this adult will need to walk for 36 minutes (1.8km) to burn the calories resulting from the sugar intake of consuming 1 portion of dried fruit.

Based on 100g, out of the 6 categories raisins had the highest sugar content at 57.4g, while dried apricots had the lowest sugar content at 35.8g. The remaining types (dried mangoes, dried strawberries, dried blueberries and dried cranberries) had average sugar contents ranging from 44.5g to 56.1g. When eating dried fruit, consumers should be mindful of the intake amount to avoid inadvertent overconsumption which could lead to excessive sugar intake. 

Hoping to select products with less sugar, health-conscious consumers tend to reference the sugar content listed on the nutrition labels of prepackaged dried fruit. However, the test results revealed that the variance in the actual and declared sugar contents of 4 samples (1 dried apricots, 1 dried mangoes, 1 raisins and 1 dried strawberries) exceeded the tolerance limit of 120% as laid out in the “Technical Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling and Nutrition Claims” (“Technical Guidance Notes”) in Hong Kong. Amongst these, the sample with the largest variance was a sample of raisins detected with a sugar content (75.1g) that far exceeded the declared sugar content (3.7g) on its packaging by around 19 times. The related information has been passed on to the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) for follow-up action. On the other hand, the sugar contents of 2 samples were found to be lower than their declared value by 68.4% and 60.2% respectively. Despite the fact that the “Technical Guidance Notes” did not set out a tolerance limit for actual sugar content lower than the declared value, inaccurate sugar content on nutrition labels may deter consumers from purchasing the product due to the high sugar content declared. The Council emphasises that it is a basic consumer right to be informed, and urges the industry to rectify the issues promptly and ensure accurate information on the product labelling, so as to allow consumers to make informed choices.

The test was unable to differentiate whether the sugars in the samples were added or naturally occurring. Although the dried fruit packaging came with nutrition labels, the declared sugar content included the natural sugars in fruit. As a result, consumers are unable to find out the amount of added sugars content purely based on the nutrition labels. The Council recommends the industry to list out the added sugars content; not only would this help consumers select healthier products, it could also encourage the industry to manufacture or import products with a lower level of free sugars.

Besides, the test revealed that two-thirds (21) of the samples were detected with pesticides, including 3 samples that claimed to be organic. Although the pesticide residue levels detected in all samples did not exceed the relevant permitted maximum level set out in Hong Kong, Codex Alimentarius Commission or European Union, 14 samples were found with 3 or more types of pesticides while 4 samples were even found with 10 types or more. It is yet to be scientifically proven whether the combined use of pesticides will lead to the synergistic ‘cocktail effect’, as well as its impact on the human body. However, the industry should adopt physical pest control measures as much as possible, and reduce the use of chemical pest control such as pesticides, so as to safeguard the health of consumers.

Polyphenols are a type of phytochemicals with antioxidant and free radical-scavenging properties. The test results revealed that the polyphenol concentrations amongst the samples vastly varied, ranging from 549.9mg to 4,516mg per 100g sample, a variance of over 7 times. Based on the average polyphenol concentration for the 6 categories of dried fruits, the samples with the highest polyphenol concentration per 100g sample were dried strawberries (2,681.3mg), dried blueberries (1,094.3mg) and dried cranberries (931.7mg) respectively. Various studies have pointed out that different types of polyphenols have different properties, but there are different opinions regarding the daily intake level of polyphenols required for it to be effective. Therefore, consumers should select and consume a wider variety of fruits to obtain the optimal nutrients.

Crops may get infected by pests and mould during the growing season; alternatively, if the crops are not properly dried and stored after harvesting, the mould may breed and release mycotoxins. 1 sample of raisins was found with trace amounts of ochratoxin A at a concentration of 2.1µg/kg, lower than the maximum limits (10µg/kg) of ochratoxin A in raisins set by the European Union, meaning normal consumption might not incur health risks. On the other hand, both the Codex Alimentarius Commission and Hong Kong food regulations have not set forth a standard for ochratoxin A in dried fruit.

Preservatives can extend the shelf life of food. The test detected benzoic acid in all 4 samples of dried cranberries, with levels ranging from 77.37mg/kg to 189.46mg/kg, lower than maximum permitted level (800mg/kg) in dried fruit as laid out in Hong Kong’s “Preservatives in Food Regulation”. However, as all 4 samples did not specify the relevant ingredients in the ingredients list, the benzoic acid detected might be naturally occurring.

Additionally, 11 test samples were found to contain sulphur dioxide, with concentrations ranging from 8mg/kg to 1,249mg/kg, all falling within the maximum permitted level for dried fruit, apricots and raisons set out in the “Preservatives in Food Regulation”. Amongst these, 4 samples had sulphur dioxide concentrations higher than 10mg/kg but did not specify the functional class of the sulphite and its name in the list of ingredients as mandated by law. Sulphur dioxide could naturally occur in food. It could act as a food preservative as well as an antioxidant to preserve the colour of dried fruit, preventing it from turning brown. Trace amounts of sulphur dioxide intake via food generally poses low risk to health, but people allergic to sulphur dioxide should be cautious while consuming, in order to avoid allergic reactions such as headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, breathing difficulties, etc.

When purchasing and consuming dried fruit, consumers should pay heed to the following:

  • It is recommended to consume 2 servings of fruit per day, preferably fresh fruit;
  • Carefully read the list of ingredients on the product packaging and try to purchase dried fruit without added sugars. Also, refrain from selecting dried fruit that is overly colourful, spoiled or mouldy;
  • Consumers allergic to sulphur dioxide or other additives should examine the list of ingredients on the product packaging, and opt for dried fruit without added preservatives or antioxidants to lower the risk of allergy;
  • If possible, select products in a small package size, or divide a large packet of dried fruit into smaller packets to control the consumption portion per time, so as to avoid excessive intake;
  • Dried fruit should be stored in a cool and dry place in an airtight container to prevent oxidation or dampness. In case of any signs of mould, discard the product immediately.

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