The Food Labelling Review that is being led by former Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett held a public consultation in Melbourne today.

Jane Martin, Senior Policy Adviser, Obesity Policy Coalition, has some tips for how the Review could help consumers (as well as a quick quizz re how much you know about what you’re eating).

She writes:

“It is an irony that at a time where there is so much information, and related marketing spin, about health and ingredients in foods, it is actually making healthier choices harder.

Confusion reigns, with packaging claiming everything from a product being 99% fat free, low GI,  Heart Foundation tick approved or when chicken nuggets have the Weight Watchers seal of  approval!

Consumers just about need a degree in nutrition to identify which processed foods are better for them. If you think that the market can be relied on to support the consumer, ask yourself this: which has more calories, a McDonalds Chicken Caesar Salad or Big Mac?

Most people would assume the salad is lower in kilojoules and they’ll have to keep assuming until we have a consistent system of food labelling that gives consumers the facts but in a way that can be easily understood.  (By the way the salad with dressing is 1974 kj, the Big Mac is 2060 kj.)

Currently, food labels fail to provide simple, accessible nutrition information that allows consumers to readily understand and compare healthiness of products.

Today in Melbourne, there was a public consultation on the issue as part of a COAG  review of food labelling,  chaired by ex-Health  Minister Dr Neal Blewett. The review panel is looking for public comment on various issues around food labelling such as lack of consistency, lack of comprehension by consumers and, in many instances, the lack of accuracy and truthfulness of claims on labels.

One of the most hotly contested areas will be the format of labelling information on packaged foods. The debate is currently polarised between traffic light labelling and percentage daily intake.

Traffic light labelling uses multiple traffic light colours  (green, amber or red) to indicate whether the levels of individual nutrients in a product  (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) are low, medium or high. A single traffic light colour can also be given to indicate the overall healthiness of the product. The criteria for the traffic light system are well established in the UK and are being increasingly applied in Australia such as for school canteen purchases.

In a pre-emptive strike, the food industry through the Australian Food and Grocery Council, has been heavily promoting the percentage Daily Intake (%DI) labelling system for some time. Under this voluntary scheme, some food companies have placed labels on their products indicating how much of your recommended daily intake of energy and different nutrients a serving of the product will contribute.

For example, boxes of Kellogg’s Cornflakes now tell you that a 30gram bowl of the cereal will give you 5% of the energy you should consume in one day.  There are, however, significant problems with this scheme.

For example, can you recall what percentage of your daily intake that bowl of  cereal was this morning? It’s great if you can, but then did you actually measure out the 30 grams serving size that the percentage related to?

Well done if you did, but are you an average adult needing an average daily intake of around 8700 kilojoules per day – which is what the scheme is based on? Great if you are, but do you have any idea if your puffy wheats are high in fat, low in salt, or whether they’re any better or worse for you than the choco-flakes next to them on the supermarket shelf?

If you do, excellent work, but now can you remember to add it to the percentage intakes for the muffin and the sandwich you’re about to consume?

Sound like a lot of hard work?

So it’s no surprise that studies conducted in Australia and overseas have found that consumers  (particularly those from lower-socio economic groups) find %DI labelling schemes confusing and difficult to interpret.

In comparison, research by the Cancer Council indicates that nine in 10 consumers are in favour of a traffic light labelling system on packaged foods and more than eight in 10 want to see it on menus  at fast food outlets. Research also indicates that consumers find the traffic lights much easier to interpret than the %DI.

So it’s important to question why the processed food industry wants to follow a % DI scheme. Is it because they’re afraid if people have an easy and accurate way to judge the  healthiness of their products, they’ll turn off in droves?

Would  it expose items such as  certain cereals, muesli bars and fruit  juice – previously badged for their  health benefits – with an unambiguous red light. Are they afraid those 99% fat-free claims will be undermined with an amber light and make people think before they buy?

With obesity at record levels, a hospital system that is already straining at the waist and with the direct cots of overweight and obesity at  $21 billion per year, shouldn’t we be giving consumers the sort of information that  supports them to make healthier choices?

The Food Labelling Review is more than just about what size fonts should be used on labels, it has the ability to empower  consumers and to improve public health.”

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