By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
In the first half of this two-part series on nutrition labelling we established that front of pack labelling is intended to help consumers easily identify and interpret nutrient declarations on prepackaged foods and beverages. While there are many varieties of front of pack labels, there are two primary forms – the warning label and the healthy choice label. Some front of pack labels merely reiterate information from the nutrition label on the back. One example of that is Coca-Cola’s labelling that includes calories per serving on the front of the label.
Singapore and the Nordic countries use labelling to rate and/or identify healthy food and beverage choices. The voluntary Healthy Choice Symbol in Singapore identifies food and beverage options with less total fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar while highlighting high sources of nutrients like fiber and calcium. The Healthy Choice Symbol is found on over 60 food categories, including fresh fruits and vegetables. One study on the Healthy Choice Symbol found that the diets of individuals consuming these foods were healthier than those not consuming foods with the Healthy Choice Symbol. For example, consumers purchasing and eating these foods were found to be half as likely to exceed the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat and twice as likely to meet calcium intake recommendations.
The Nordic keyhole system is similar to the Healthy Choice Symbol, with a keyhole image representing foods with less fat and healthier sources of fat, less sugar, less salt and more dietary fiber and whole grains. The keyhole symbol can be found on fruits, vegetables, fish and shellfish, meat, bread and grain products, dairy products and packaged foods and/or meals. The labelling of foods that are not processed and/or packaged is an aspect of this form of front of pack labelling that should be a mandatory component of all front of pack labelling systems. Regardless of the information conveyed (source of fiber, less sugar, etc.), this system recognizes that all types of food make up a consumer’s diet and helps them make the best choices overall. While voluntary, those utilizing the Keyhole label must adhere to specific nutrition criteria. The Keyhole system has been in Sweden for over 20 years and is also used in Norway and Denmark.
Chile, on the other hand, plans to use a front of pack warning label. Packaged foods and drinks high in saturated fat, sugar or salt would have an octagon shaped warning symbol identifying the source of malfeasance. Rather than identify health food choices, these labels are meant to warn or remind consumers of the risks, i.e. overweight, obesity and diabetes, associated with consuming these foods regularly.
There is also a ‘middle ground’ nutrition labelling style, examples of which can be found in both Australia and Ecuador. The Australian Health Star Rating is a front of pack label system that rates the overall nutritional profile of the packaged food. Star ratings range from ½ a star to 5 stars with more stars signifying a healthier choice. Ecuador has what is called the “traffic-light” system where nutrients are color-coded green, yellow/amber or red. These colors are meant to help consumers identify the healthiness of a food at-a-glance.
While these examples demonstrate the variety of ways nutrition information can be conveyed, the overall intent of each labelling system is the same: to help consumers make informed nutrition choices that lead to better health. Some studies have looked at the impact of front of pack nutrition labelling but the final verdict is still out on what style is most successful. The Conversation assessed the Australian Health Star Rating system last year and found considerable flaws. The biggest pitfall they identified was that the star ratings are only found on packaged foods. With a campaign message that endorses “the more stars, the healthier” a food, it can confuse consumers and encourage them to only shop for foods with the star rating. To do so would omit a significant source of other nutritious foods.
A particular focus of the World Health Organization Technical Meeting in December 2015 was an overall review and look at standardization opportunities for front of pack labelling. As more countries look to improve, develop or institute front of pack labelling, guidelines and even standardization procedures must be considered, weighed and implemented. This will help consumers everywhere are able to make nutritious choices with ease when shopping for food.