By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
Have you ever noticed that the serving size for spray oil is 1/3 second? If so, do you know how to actually dispense that from the canister? Or how about this, the print size on the back of the food item you are about to consume is too small and the serving size is illegible. Maybe you bought cereal with a “high fiber” indicator on the front of the box but later realize it contains more than four teaspoons worth of sugar per serving. Or worse, you notice that the “sell-by” date was yesterday and so you throw away the unopened package.
What do all of these examples have in common? Nutrition labelling. Unfortunately as indicated above, the contents of a nutrition label can vary widely confusing the consumer and contributing to unhealthy dietary habits and food waste. Issues with nutrition labelling can be found around the world.
Globally, nutrition labeling can be boiled down to three categories. They are as follows:
- Voluntary, unless a nutrition or health claim is made (e.g. low fat, calcium,-rich, high protein or source of fiber)
- No Regulation
An international set of food standards, called the Codex Alimentarius, offers guidelines and codes of practice related to the safety and quality of food. However, these are voluntary with the recommendation that members adhere to them. And not all do. For instance, there are multiple members of Codex that choose not to participate in the labelling guidelines and fall under the labeling category of “no regulation”.
To further complicate nutrition labelling is the issue of how to list the contents themselves. The Codex guidelines contain mandatory nutrients which are to appear on every label and include energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sodium and sugar. Beyond this, there is considerable variation on what information appears on the nutrition label or even where it is displayed. Some nutrition labels incorporate country of origin, allergens, shelf-life or best-by dates. Others have minimum font sizes, require detachable labels or GMO labelling.
All of this can be challenging for consumers to make sense of when shopping for pre-packaged foods and beverages. In addition, a lack of consumer understanding of nutrition labels and therefore food content, can lead to increased obesity and non-communicable diseases. To address these issues, a few new takes on the nutrition label are in the works. A system called the NuVal, short for nutritional value, scores food products (frozen pizza, tomato products, soup, salad dressing, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, granola bars and ice cream in this study) on a scale of 1 to 100. The higher the score, the more nutritious the food. A study examining this nutrition scoring system found that it increased healthy shopping choices by over 20 percent.
Another method of labelling, called front-of-package labelling, was recently the focus of a World Health Organization Technical Meeting in December 2015 on nutrition labelling. Front-of-package labelling, also known as supplementary labelling in the Codex, is meant to help consumers easily identify and interpret nutrient declarations found on pre-packaged foods and beverages. Despite the existing confusion around food labels and the need for more consumer-friendly labelling systems, it is comforting to know that existing labelling guidelines are undergoing review with intent to update them in light of available evidence and recent health and nutrition recommendations.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog that examines FOP labelling and the successes and challenges that individual countries have uncovered as they attempt to assist their citizens in making healthy food choices.