Are food labels important?
Extensive research has been conducted into the impact that food labelling has on supporting consumers’ ability to make healthier food choices. Front of package labelling is widely found on products with an assortment of nutritional information available. The Food Standards Agency (UK FSA) has adopted the traffic light approach. The traffic light labelling at present, is a voluntary front of pack nutrition information protocol, which must be provided in addition to and not in isolation from the full mandatory back of pack nutrition declaration.
The UK’s front of package label launched in June 2013. This label demonstrates the acceptable portion size indication; the amount of each nutrient and the energy value (kJ and kcals) in a given portion of the product; use of red, amber and green colour coding and the percentage of reference intake information.
Mandatory back of pack labelling could be reassessed soon with Article 50 being triggered on the 29th March 2017, starting a two-year process of negotiations for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU). The Government wants to establish a new partnership between the UK and the EU. The outcome of these negotiations and desired partnership may influence food labelling and how nutritional information is provided as at present the UK adhere to EU law.
At present when front of pack labelling is provided it must adhere to the requirements set out in the European Union regulation No. 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (EU FIC). See below for the stated requirements.
- Information should be provided in one of two formations: energy plus fat, saturates, sugars and salt (“energy +4”) or energy alone.
- Font size requirements are met and font provisions meet legibility.
- Measurements can be provided per 100g/ml only; per 100g/ml and per portion; or on a per portion basis only: this only applies in cases of energy +4. Where information is provided per portion only for energy +4 the absolute value for energy must be provided per 100g/ml which is in addition to per portion.
- Percentage reference intakes (%RIs) can be provided on a per 100g/ml and/or per portion basis.
- Where % RI information is provided on a package, on a per 100g/ml basis, the statement ‘reference intake of an average adult (8400kJ/2000kcal)’ is required.
- Additional forms of expression are allowed if they meet requirements set out in the EU FIC if it relates to their methods of development, interested party involvement in that process and scientific strength.
- EU FIC requires the energy value to be stated in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal).
Currently UK law only requires back of pack labelling to be an average value; which is defined as the value that best represent the amount of the nutrient which is contained in a given food. These values are derived from the manufacturers and/or direct chemical analysis of food and/or a calculation from the known or actual average value of the ingredients used and/or a calculation from the generally established and accepted data. Research suggests a limitation when comparing branded and generic foods in the current database. In a study on the development of a new branded UK food composition database for an online Dietary Assessment Tool, 1500 generic foods were identified as having an energy value as much as 100% greater than that of branded food. As preventing obesity requires long-term maintenance of healthy eating and healthy choices, it is unknown if consumers’ choice of branded food or generic food could have a substantial impact on their dietary intake.
Nevertheless, there has been extensive research across Europe that has shown that many consumers can effectively use front of pack labels to rank a product’s ‘health’ status, though there is need for more research to examine the impact of nutritional information on the population’s dietary intake.
However, we need to consider the impact of the ‘health halo’ effect, where consumers perceive a product is healthy and therefore have less consumption guilt, thus giving them a licence to overeat. As EU law does not stipulate that nutrition information must be provided per serving, consumers may overeat a product, not understanding the full content per 100g/ml. Therefore, it is important to consider how calorie information is presented in relation to portion size standardisation; as misinterpretation of nutrient information can occur when an individual’s knowledge of label information is poor.
Front of pack labelling plays an important part in raising awareness of a product’s nutritional value for the general population. However, the research suggests that standardisation of per portion nutritional value labelling over manufacturers’ free choice between portion size only or per 100g/ml labelling might potentially increase the ability of individuals with less nutrition knowledge to understand the total energy intake in a food product. There also needs to be more research conducted into the nutritional value of generic products input into the electron food composition database as misinformation may lead to excess energy intake in an individual’s diet. It will be interesting to see how Article 50 affects the status of nutrition and labelling in the UK in the future.