How healthy is this food?
According to a 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine in the U.S.1, prior to the 1970s, most meals were made in the home from basic ingredients. At that time there was little information on food labels to identify their nutritional content and there was little demand for that kind of label. Since then, an increasing array of processed food has entered the market and as a result, pre-packaged food is not only widely available in Western Culture, it’s increasingly consumed in Eastern countries such as China, Japan and India. With the introduction of these foods, consumers requested information to help understand their nutritional quality.
‘Codex Alimentarius’ or ‘Food Code’ standards
The Codex Alimentarius Commission2, also known as CAC, established in 1961 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and joined a year later by the World Health Organisation3 (WHO), is mandated to protect consumer health and ensure fair practices in international food trade. The Commission’s work is central to the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme.
To that end, it coordinates input from almost 2004 member countries in developing and endorsing Codex Alimentarius, or ‘Food Code’: a collection of international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice. Although CAC covers a broad range of topics such as pesticides, animal feed and biotechnology5, their work on nutrition labels will be the focus here6.
Nutrition labels in the U.S.
To help consumers determine the nutrition value of food, in 1969, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health recommended the U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider the development of a nutritional food identification system. Within a few years, rules were proposed for cholesterol, fat and sodium.
Since then, on-going research and discussion not only within the federal administrative functions of the U.S. but around the world, have developed and improved a Food Labelling standard, culminating in the latest fifth edition published in 20077. These labels have a broader scope, including items such as calories, carbohydrates and sugars. Knowing what’s in food has made us more aware of the healthier options available and therefore more aware of the broader concept of making more sustainable choices.
The broader scope also applies to the the U.S. Codex program8 today, as it now involves a partnership among all relevant food agencies in the US in the promotion of CAC’s stated goals.
Nutrition labels in India, China, Japan and the E.U.
While processed foods were slower to appear in countries such as India, China and Japan, levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease began affecting more regions of the world and so, concern for the nutritional value of food spread. New labelling and packaging regulations were brought into law in India in 20119, China in 201310 and Japan in 201511.
After being introduced in the EU in 201112, a subsequent European Commission press release in December 2014 stated13,“… citizens will see the results of years of work to improve food labelling rules. Key content information will now be more clearly marked on labels, helping people make informed choices on the food they buy. The new rules put the consumer first by providing clearer information, and in a way that is manageable for businesses.” Mandatory labelling applied in the EU from December 2016.
The nutrition labels in place are not without their problems.
Differences across countries
- Differences exist between EU and US nutrition labels, such as the way calories are denoted in grams and portions respectively, or the way salt is listed instead of sodium14.
- The ‘healthiness’ of a product is presented differently in different countries too15. In the UK, Ecuador and Ireland, a traffic light system is used, with red denoting unhealthier nutrient content than amber or green. Singapore has a voluntary healthier choice symbol which generally means lower total fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. The Nordic region uses the Nordic Keyhole, another voluntary system that indicates lower fat content, less sugar, less salt and higher fibre, while Australia has a more generic 5-star rating system.
Disguising unhealthy ingredients
Unscrupulous manufacturers, while working within the constraints of the law, rename ingredients that consumers know are not known for their positive contribution to health. E-number replacement with chemical names and specifically known chemical name replacements with generic sub-food types are known practices to disguise harmful ingredients.
At a more granular level, the amount of calories listed on a label doesn’t reflect how an individual’s biological make-up will react to the associated food. Therefore, the number of calories allows for a variance and the exact calorie count will differ per person. Over time, this will likely become more accurate as more research takes place.
Monitoring nutrition labels
To tackle some of these issues and highlight problems, there is a wealth of information in each country to educate businesses in complying with relevant laws. Much of this information can also be read by consumers, such as this report from Ireland:
- Information on Nutrition and Health Claims16
Discussion in the media and academic reports help highlight concerns and report on the actual label implementations in practice, such as the examples below:
- Can you trust food labels?17
- Completeness of nutrient declarations in Beijing China18
These allow for labels to be policed and for improvements in future incarnations of food standards using the problems highlighted by existing practices.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of research into healthier choices has also led to supply-side changes, with many instances of manufacturers and food-chains reducing the salt, fat and sugar content of their products to remain competitive.
While there isn’t a single worldwide system in place, and those that are, are not without their problems, a core similarity prevails, showing the significant workload and international discussion undertaken to get nutrition labels to this point. As a result, at the point of sale, customers have a system to make healthier choices, choices that have affected demand throughout the world.
The presence of nutrition labels has been a catalyst not just for those health-conscious customers who have more and better information at the check-out than they would have had were no label present, but they have induced supply-side changes to meet the demands from agencies, governments and international bodies who drive healthier policies too.
The references below, all available online, contain further detail for those interested in the topic.