Food labelling – cutting through the hype

| March 7, 2014

Consumers relying on food packaging may find it difficult to sort out nutrition facts from marketing hype. Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager of Cancer Council NSW, explains how the Health Star Rating scheme will help shoppers make healthier choices.

Food labelling has never been as hot a topic as it has been in recent weeks, after the Commonwealth Government’s Health Star Rating food labelling website was taken down amid accusations of conflicts of interest within Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s office, resulting in her chief of staff resigning and the senior bureaucrat responsible for the new labelling scheme being removed from the project.

It’s little wonder; with obesity and chronic disease on the rise in Australia, food labels and their role in guiding healthy choices deserve to be in the spotlight. The range of food choices available at the supermarket has exploded in recent years with now hundreds of breakfast cereals and biscuit snacks for consumers to choose from.  At the same time we’re being encouraged to lower our salt intake and cut kilojoules. But if you’re relying on food packaging you may find it difficult to sort out the nutrition facts from the marketing hype.

Food labelling is the final product advertisement; a manufacturer’s last chance to attract our attention at the time of purchase and convince us to buy their product over a competitor’s. But these last-ditch advertising messages can add to the confusion for shoppers who are looking to make healthier choices. Do I look for low fat products? Are high energy foods a good choice? Does a food contain the vitamins that will give me the boost I’m told I need?

In Australia we have legislation that requires most supermarket products to carry information about key nutrients such as sugars, sodium and fats, displayed per 100 grams or millilitres on the back of the pack. Historically, these mandatory nutrition information panels were introduced in a move towards giving consumers more information about what’s in their foods so that they can make informed choices about what to eat.

But the front of the pack is a different matter. New legislation introduced in 2013 now ensures only healthy products can carry health claims such as cholesterol-lowering properties or benefits for digestive health.  But when it comes to claims about nutrient content, such as “low in fat”, “high in protein” or “a source of Vitamin C” we may only be getting part of the story. For example, a product claiming to be low in fat could also be high in sugar or salt. It is very difficult for consumers to trawl through all this information to find the healthier choice.

At a time where shoppers are increasingly time poor, the majority of Australian adults are overweight or obese and we’re all being encouraged to take greater personal responsibility for the food choices we make, it makes sense to use the front of food labels to help shoppers make healthier choices at a glance. Information on the front of the pack that interprets the healthiness for us, such as the Health Star Rating scheme, cuts through all the hype and shows us just how healthy a product really is. The Health Star Rating scheme will help consumers tell at a glance which products are the better choices.

Obesity is a risk factor for cancer. Keeping people better informed about the food they buy will help those who want to make healthier choices, whether it is to lose weight, to maintain their current weight or manage other conditions such as high-cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

We all know that we should limit our intake of highly processed foods and try to eat mostly unpackaged and minimally processed foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, wholegrain plant foods, lean meat and dairy products. But given our need for convenience and the number of ultra-processed foods in the supermarket, Australian’s will continue to rely on packaged foods.

Those who want to cut through the marketing hype and find the product that is better for them should be able to do so, quickly and easily. The Health Star Rating scheme will create a level playing field for manufacturers and help shoppers to navigate their way through an increasingly confusing supermarket environment.