Nutrition labels are designed to confuse
1st August 2005
It’s more than 20 years since a senior government committee recommended clear and simple nutrition labelling. We still don’t have it, and the government is proposing yet another voluntary labelling initiative. Will consumers ever get the information they need?
In 1984 The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) urged government action on nutrition labelling, recommending that the fat content of food should be declared as a matter of course.
Over two decades have passed, yet even this most simple of recommendations has not been enacted, despite endless rounds of consultation, government meetings, committees, European discussions, campaigning and media attention.
Some pre-packed foods still do not carry fat information, loose foods rarely carry information, and most take-away and restaurant food declares no nutrition information at all.
So if anyone asks how long it will take to get clear, at-a-glance information about the healthiness of food, designed in one simple format that everyone can learn and understand, our answer would have to be: Don't hold your breath.
Nutrition labelling is generally voluntary, since only foods that make health or nutrition claims on their labels are obliged to declare their nutrient content.
Although many manufacturers and all supermarkets do provide some nutrition information, the format prescribed in law is highly technical – relying, for instance, on people's ability to do maths to work out the salt content of foods from a sodium figure that must be multiplied by 2.5 and then by the portion size to reveal how much salt is consumed.
They also rely on a sophisticated understanding of nutrients, to work out what numbers mean in the context of the diet.
In 1985, the Food Commission (then the London Food Commission) successfully demonstrated a straightforward star-rating system to identify and label menu items that were 'high' or 'low' in certain nutrients that affect health. The Coronary Prevention Group continued this work and promoted, in 1992, a workable and scientifically based four-category banding scheme suitable for food labelling.
Only the Co-op supermarket adopted such an approach for pre-packed food, and still give this information in their nutrition panels. In 2004, the Co-op extended this work by undertaking a pilot project demonstrating that interpretive labelling can affect people’s choices, with customers choosing, for instance, less salty pasta sauce.
Tesco flirted with a similar food labelling scheme in 2004, but dropped it after we showed that some of their Healthy Living range would have to carry a red warning. Now Sainsbury's has launched its own version in 2005, on a few own-brand products.
From its launch in 2000, the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has skirted around the issue of nutrition labelling, preferring to spend time on the technical small-print detail of labels rather than bold initiatives to help consumers improve their health. It took until 2004 for the Food Standards Agency to pick up the reins of interpretive nutrition labelling.
The FSA's Action plan on food promotions and children's diets recommended to government a single UK-wide signposting scheme for food products, 'to make it easier for consumer to make healthier choices'. This became a government commitment in the Department of Health's Choosing Health white paper, published autumn 2004.
The food industry has predictably dug its heels in – the last thing they want is for ‘eat less’ labels to be put on their food products. ‘The ‘traffic light’ approach leads to artificial segregation of foods by attacking staples of our diet such as meat and dairy products,’ protests Kevin Hawkins, director general of the British Retail Consortium – the industry body that represents supermarkets. ‘Such wrong thinking has no scientific underpinning and could lead to serious unforeseen consequences for individuals such as a dangerous fall in their iron or calcium intake. It could also lead to an increase in eating disorders.’
Martin Paterson, deputy director of the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), the food manufacturers' umbrella body, said, ‘Simplistic schemes which categorise products into good and bad could seriously mislead consumers.’
'The traffic light system wouldn't work,' adds Christine Fisk, also of the FDF. 'A product like cheese, for example, which has a high fat and salt content would be red, but cheese can be a vital part of a healthy diet. If 'traffic light' labelling were adopted, it could mean some consumers actually become less healthy.’
Consumer research has demonstrated to the FSA that most people want better food information, especially interpretive information displayed on the front of the pack, making comparison between products quick and easy.
The FSA's research found two approaches most promising. One was a single traffic light, combining the main nutrients into a single measure and might be depicted as red, amber or green. The other was a multiple traffic light showing separate information for the total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content.
The research also confirmed that most people don't like having to do mathematical calculations such as those required for number-based systems like the industry’s ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’.
Industry told to take action
At the end of 2004, the Department of Health told food manufacturers that it wanted to see a single UK-wide signposting scheme for food products, to make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices.
What was the industry's response? Within a few months, international food companies Kellogg's and Nestlé chose to ignore government research into the format that most consumers would find useful, and muscled into the scene with their own front-of-pack nutrition labelling.
This is surely a spoiling tactic to ward off the probability that some of their products would be labelled under government proposals as 'high sugar' or 'high salt'. They are based on an industry-promoted 'Guideline Daily Amount' (GDA) system, drawn up by the industry-funded body, the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD).
The language confuses shoppers by mixing maximum recommended levels (e.g. for salt or saturated fat) with minimum recommended levels (e.g. for fibre). Food Standards Agency research has already shown that consumers would prefer clear front-of-pack information that would tell them if a product is healthy or not, and allow them to make comparisons between products easily. But, as we show here, the recent industry initiatives can only be designed to confuse.
We do hope the FSA stands firm, but we are also well aware that they will not make such labelling a legal requirement. In the age of 'nannyphobic' Blair, any action will be voluntary. So it's likely we will be here two decades from now, complaining about the lack of easy-to-read nutrition information on food. Which is a shame, because we (and the government) have better things to do with our time.
Nestlé's contribution to labelling confusion is this new front-of-pack panel, appearing on products such as Shreddies, Cheerios, Nesquik and Cookie Crisp breakfast cereals.
We could unpick this label for hours, but here are just a couple of examples of what we believe to be confusing.
Nestlé uses the industry's 'Guideline Daily Amounts' (GDAs). On a Shreddies pack, a smiling Miriam Stoppard explains: 'I find the best way to think of GDAs is as a tool to help you make sure you get enough of the nutrients you need every day.'
Sorry, Miriam, the Institute of Grocery Distribution explicitly says that 'GDAs are not targets for individuals but are guidelines which provide consumers with additional information which they can use to gain an improved understanding of their daily consumption of Calories, fat and saturates'.
Also, note that IGD makes no mention of whole grain, and yet Nestlé tell us that a serving of the cereal contributes 87% of the 'whole grain GDA'. To our knowledge, there is no GDA for whole grain, nor for fibre and iron which are also described in GDA terminology on the side of the pack. We could go on…
Heinz describes salt in what we believe to be a confusing way. On this can of beans, the label says, 'A serving contains 1.7g of an adult's recommended daily salt intake of 6g'. We think that this gives the impression that 6g is a target to be achieved, rather than an upper level that is well above what is actually needed.
New front-of-pack nutrition labelling from Kellogg's uses a bar chart to represent GDAs as daily targets – again, out of line with the definition of GDAs. To the regular list of GDAs, Kellogg's adds fibre, calcium, iron, sugar and salt, none of which are currently covered by IGD's scheme (although some recommendations for salt and sugar GDAs were published for consultation by the IGD in April 2005).
The case of salt is especially interesting, as Kellogg's states that 6g is the Guideline Daily Amount for consumption by 'the majority of people'.
In fact, 4g is the figure put forward by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) as the daily amount needed by the vast majority of adults to maintain health (the Reference Nutrient Intake, deemed adequate for 97.5% of adults). We think the Kellogg's label portrays 6g of salt as a desirable upper goal to be achieved every day.
In any case, aren't Frosties a children's brand? The only advice that Kellogg's gives on this point is that 'GDAs are based on official recommendations; active men will have higher requirements and younger children typically lower'. Younger? Younger than what? Lower? How much lower? Again, we could go on…
New front-of-pack nutrition information from Sainsbury's bears some relation to the Food Standards Agency's proposed 'traffic light' system. In comparison to the efforts from Nestlé and Kellogg's, we think it's not too bad.
But it still has confusing aspects. For instance, Sainsbury's Reduced Sugar Frosted Flakes sports a green for sugar, fat and added sugars, but it is a product that contains 'a lot' of sugar according to official Food Standards Agency definitions.
Also, if this is a scheme designed to help people compare products, then you might expect Sainsbury's to put the information on its regular products as well.
But if you were to look in the same top right-hand corner of a box of regular Sainsbury's frosted flakes, you would find an offer for a free trip to Legoland!
To sort out labelling, bring in the professionals!
If past experience is anything to go by, we can expect months, probably years, of back-and-forth arguments about nutrition labelling between government and industry.
However, one government department has gone ahead and simply enacted traffic light categorisation of food products, without any of this endless fuss. Their 190,000 staff haven't died of cheese deficiency, nor do they seem paralysed with confusion over what food to choose, as food industry bosses foretell.
The nutrition information that accompanies this organisation's traffic light system is straightforward, and they are unafraid to tell their staff which foods are 'high' in fat, salt and sugar and which foods are better choices, knowing that this is useful information to enable people to choose a healthy diet.
Which is this progressive government department, concerned with the health of their staff? The Department of Health? The Department for Education? The Department of Trade and Industry? The Food Standards Agency? No. It's the Ministry of Defence, in advice to members of the armed forces, published in 2002 by its Expert Panel on Armed Forces Feeding. And we applaud them for it.