The UK is rolling out a new voluntary front-of-packaging food labelling over the next 18 months. While I like some aspects of it I’m not so keen on others. Honestly, I’m not sure that any nutrition labelling is going to fully satisfy me. I want to know all of the nutrients but I don’t want to be overwhelmed with information. I also want to know information beyond nutrients such as: GMO, organic, vegan, local…
Let’s start with what I like about the new labels. I like that they use colour coding. Much like the stop-light system they’ve used in the past: red means a high amount of an undesirable nutrient (more on this to follow), orange means borderline high, and green means “healthy”. I like that they’ve focused on only a few nutrients so as to keep things simple: calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt (oddly not sodium, although I presume that this is what they actually mean). Are these the nutrients I would choose. I don’t know. Probably not. I would like to see some positive nutrient featured. How about telling us the fibre up-front? Or unsaturated fats? Also, call me crazy but haven’t we already come to the conclusion that saturated fats aren’t necessarily unhealthy? Personally, I tend to pay very little attention to the fat content these days. If there’s trans-fat I’m out, but pretty much anything else is fair game provided the food is a good source of other nutrients and the total calorie content is reasonable. I also think that we would be much better off focusing on ingredients rather than nutrient panels. It’s easy for food manufacturers to remove “bad” things and add “good” things to manipulate their highly-processed food into appearing healthy on the basis of the nutrition facts panel. Oops… I was supposed to be focusing on what I like about the packaging. Back to it… I like that the numbers are large and that both grams and percent daily value are noted.
Now, what I don’t like. I don’t like how it’s arranged. The way that the number of servings is noted after the 30 g serving quantity make it appear as if you get 16 servings from 30 g, rather than each serving being 30 g. I also find the note about the 100 g and typical servings at the bottom confusing. Maybe it’s just me. But, maybe not. I think that front-of-packaging labelling needs to be extremely clear. I also don’t like the quantities that the ratings are based on. For one thing, the percentages are meant to be universal but the recommendations for women are based on 2, 000 calories a day, 2, 500 for men. Are the percentages based on men or women or an average of both? This is one reason I hate percent daily values. I also think that those calorie counts are quite high for most people. Obviously everyone’s different but based on predominantly sedentary lifestyles I think that they should probably lower these amounts (if they insist on using the %DV). I also question the recommended amounts used for things like sodium. Food packaging labels (and these are no exception) always use 2, 400 mg even though the recommended maximum is 2, 300 mg for a healthy adult. I also wonder how they came to the conclusion that 5.1 g of sugar (at 6%) is high. Yes, ideally, we would all be consuming cereals without any sugar but 5 grams is only slightly over a teaspoon and the rule-of-thumb I’ve always told people in regards to cereals is to stick to single digits. Considering that accepted nutrient guidelines for sugar have yet to be developed I’m not sure that it’s advisable to include this information of the front-of-package labelling. Another issue is that the labelling is voluntary, making it difficult to easily compare foods.
Kudos to the UK for getting this started. Hopefully, after the voluntary roll-out has occurred, the labelling will be improved and will be made mandatory for all packaged foods and then the rest of the world will follow suit.