The labelling issue

Label

Nutrition labels on products give little or no useful information to consumers

The US Food and Drug Administration last month proposed revisions to nutrition labels on products for the first time in two decades as a means of combating obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.

The new labels would prominently display the calories count on the products. It would also adjust serving sizes to correspond more closely to the actual amount consumers typically eat, which in some cases, like ice cream, could be double the listed amount.

How often do you open a bag of crisps and resist eating it all in one go? According to the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) label, a serving of crisps, or half a bag, contains 24% of the 2,000kCal a typical adult needs per day. That means if you’ve been sitting on the couch watching a Game Of Thrones marathon and have eaten two bags of crisps, then you shouldn’t be eating anything else with calories for the rest of the day.

The issues with food labels, nonetheless, are not just a health concern in the US alone but extend across the globe — they are difficult to decipher for anyone who isn’t familiar. In Thailand, nutrition labels were introduced in 1998, as consumers became more health conscious and knowledge on nutritional values in processed food increased. However until now, only packaged foods which have nutritional claims, which uses nutritional values for sales promotion, and food which caters to specific consumer groups are required to display nutrition labels.

“The first issue that comes to mind is the fact that there is too much information on the labels regardless of the size of the packaging,” says Patchara Klaewkla, Food Alert System officer of the Foundation for Consumers. “The labels are so small you need a magnifying glass to read then.” He points out that generally, people only look at the expiration date and even that is confusing — people get confused by the terms “best before” and the actual expiration date. “The expiration date has no designated placement on packages. It can be anywhere on the package. There is no standardised date/month/year format,” Patchara explains.

“According to a national survey conducted last year, 57% of consumers know about the nutrition labels. And of that 57%, only 61% understands what it means,” says Malee Jirawongsri, head of the pre-marketing section of Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration.

One common difficulty with regard to food labels is that consumers have to decode scientific terms. For example, monosodium glutamate is used for the common food flavour enhancer. The name of the products could also be misleading — think the recent scandal where a frozen pork rice burger actually contained traces of chicken. On top of that, there is a lack of consistency in providing information on preservatives and food colouring. The labels do not have to specify the exact chemical used. But most importantly, the allergy warnings should be displayed more prominently.

“Consumers have the right to know the right information,” Patchara adds.

The GDA label compared to the nutrition label is more consumer-friendly. The label, mostly displayed in the front of snack packages, was introduced in Thailand in 2011 “to help consumers understand the nutrients present in processed food, and compare it to the daily requirements, especially in snacks — things children buy in school, things people eat in front of the TV or during work”, says Malee.

The GDA label declares the value of energy, sugar, fat and sodium in relation to the maximum amount that should be consumed per day for a regular adult — 2,000kCal of energy, 64g of sugar, 65g of fat, and 2,400mg of sodium. The label is currently mandatory for the following five groups of snack foods: fried or baked potato crisps, fried or baked corn crisps, rice crisps or extruded snack, crackers or biscuits, and filled wafers.

Despite the consumer-friendliness of the GDA label, here consumers face another dilemma. The nutrients are presented per package unit, which may make it difficult for comparison to other products with different units. Presenting the individual units can be useful for people suffering from specific illnesses, like diabetes or kidney diseases, but it can also complicate things further.

“If a product is high in fat and sugar but low in sodium, how do you know if it’s healthy? Which one are you supposed to pick?” Malee asks.

Even experts get confused, Patchara and Malee agree. “Some laws can even create a hindrance for consumers,” Patchara adds. “Many imported goods require additional labels to comply with the Thai standard. These additional labels may sometimes contain different units. Even I am not sure which one to look at.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the food label issue, there are no easy solutions.

“We are working on different channels of communication, through schools and hospitals, for example. Knowledge has to be delivered to the people,” says Malee.

Patchara recommends that consumers must read the labels and boycott products that choose not to show you what you are eating, or exaggerate the benefits of certain ingredients through advertisement of medicinal benefits.

“Always question the intention of providing or retaining important information,” he says.

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Source: Bangkok Post:  Published: 24/03/2014 at 11:57 PM

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