Food labels are about informing choice, not some nanny state

Food labelling has been a central plank of the food regulatory system since it first emerged in the mid-1800s. Marcos Pozo López/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Coalition MP Ewen Jones has spoken out against reinstating the health star rating website controversially closed down by the assistant health minister. Jones says the government shouldn’t interfere with people’s lives, but food labelling requirements aren’t a manifestation of the nanny state, they’re there to provide accurate, easy-to-understand information.

Indeed, food labelling has been a central plank of the food regulatory system since it first emerged in the mid-1800s. Back then, it was not uncommon for products to be adulterated, or marketed with fraudulent claims.

There were reported cases of people being deceived about the weight of the food or its composition. One practice involved adding white colouring to water to create the appearance of milk. Labels provided an effective tool to help food regulators solve such problems.

Things stay the same?

The main issues confronting food regulators have now changed considerably, partly due to the availability of many more products. You might think this increased choice has provided increased opportunity to choose a healthy and varied diet, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Rather, what we have is a proliferation of high-energy, nutrient-poor “discretionary” or junk food constructed from the same basic highly-refined ingredients, such as corn, soy, sugar, fats and salt, typically coloured, flavoured, packaged and marketed in different ways. And the increased amount of information that has accompanied this proliferation often translates into increased confusion.

What’s more, many food products are still marketed with dubious claims. Highly-processed breakfast cereals containing a third of their weight in added sugar, for instance, are marketed as being healthy because they contain a number of added synthetic vitamins and minerals.

Food labels can now be the shopper’s ally by promoting informed choices for a healthy balanced diet, or adversary by promulgating misleading claims that create confusion and uncertainty.

Food regulators are supposed to use labels to help achieve two primary statutory objectives – to protect public health and safety and to provide adequate information relating to food to enable consumers to make informed choices. But there are many reasons why the current approach is inadequate.

A screenshot from the health star rating food labelling website shut down by the government. Christina Pollard

Health claims

Marketing products with health claims, such as “This product helps reduce the risk of heart disease” provides a strong angle for generating increased sales. And the food industry has fought hard for permission to use such claims on food labels.

Despite evidence showing these claims have little, if any, benefit for the health of the population, in early 2013, Australian ministers permitted the use of health claims on food labels.

Public health and consumer groups expressed concern that such claims make a nonsense of the fundamental nutrition principle that the balance of the total diet shapes health outcomes, not individual foods.

They also pointed out that junk food manufacturers would take advantage of the marketing potential of such claims. And the first notification the food regulator received was from the manufacturer of a highly-processed food claiming to have a “calorie burning effect”.

If health claims are to genuinely be about protecting public health and not marketing, food labelling regulations might mandate them and link products’ added sugar with dental cavities, for instance, or their salt content with hypertension.

Spreading confusion

People are frequently confused about the information appearing on food labels. And this confusion isn’t helped by the use of words such as “natural” or “real”, which are undefined in labelling law but imply some kind of benefit.

Some products imply they’re made with fruit when, in fact, they contain little fruit and are very high in sugar. Following a complaint from the Obesity Policy Coalition about the potential misrepresentation of a “65% real fruit” claim on Uncle Tobys Roll-Ups, for instance, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission took the view that the claim was potentially misleading and deceptive.

Confusion can also be created by what’s implied but not explicitly said. A claim such as “97% fat free”, for instance, might be displayed on products that wouldn’t usually contain fat anyway but have added sugar, such as confectionery.

A screenshot from the health star rating food labelling website showing what the system would look like. Christina Pollard

Endorsement schemes displayed on food labels are another source of consumer confusion because the criteria used to endorse food products can vary among schemes and with nutrition policy recommendations. Concern has been expressed about the National Heart Foundation’s “Tick” scheme, for instance, because it’s not always consistent with Dietary Guideline recommendations.

The emphasis on most food labels is placed on persuading people to buy the product rather than informing them about it. That’s why the way information is framed on labels imply benefit.

Labels range from “information only” to information with an element of persuasion – “5% fat” is information only whereas “95% fat-free” is information plus persuasion. And people already interested in low-fat products will be persuaded to choose the 95% fat-free product.

Protecting public health and promoting informed choice

Clearly, there are problems with the current food labelling regime. But why does something that promotes informed choice have to be so difficult?

Why would Jones and the assistant health minister Fiona Nash want to maintain an information asymmetry in favour of the food industry and at the expense of the people they’re elected to represent?

At least seven years in the making, with the involvement of food ministers, government food regulation advisors, food industry representatives, consumer advocates, public health organisations, and an independent public health nutrition advisor, the Star Rating labelling system was a good start to positive change.

The approach is informative, easy to understand and targeted at helping correct dietary imbalances that are one of the major public health problems confronting food regulators.

But as the debacle with the website showing the system has illustrated, the challenge with developing and implementing informative food labelling is often less about evidence and more about the political will to stand up to the interests of the food industry to whom clear labels may not always be palatable.

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