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Why food labels do more harm than good

Nutritional labels are now commonplace in the UK but there is strong evidence to suggest that consumers find it difficult to interpret the details.

The UK Government’s Responsibility Deal was launched five years ago to persuade food and drink manufacturers to reduce sugar, salt, calories and alcohol levels in their products and make a positive impact on the nation’s health. It was met with widespread derision.

Critics claimed it was “like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank”, effectively allowing junk food companies to write health rules. So what, if anything, did it achieve?

"Like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank"

A recent study by the University of Birmingham revealed over a third of consumers are confused by today’s nutritional labels (many of which stem from the Responsibility Deal). The research team discovered that the number of different pieces of information on a product, such as fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories, as well as percentage of guideline daily amount, grams per serving and a related traffic light colour scheme, can result in information overload.

The traffic light system, where fat, sugar and salt content are labelled red, orange or green according to the amounts contained within the product, causes particular confusion. For example, is a product with two red labels and three greens healthier than one with five oranges?

Given that the average busy consumer spends no more than ten seconds scanning a label, printing ingredient and nutrition listings in tiny fonts doesn’t make things easier.

The size of a portion may also vary considerably between products. Portion sizes are controlled by manufacturers, so we eat in multiples of their single portion. We know that many obese people have problems with portion control so the lack of consistency is arguably a license to overeat.

If a single portion is too small, you are more likely to eat two portions than buy two and eat one and a half. You may also be misled that the calories stated are for the entire packet, rather than one of two portions.

High-calorie products are also often marketed with a health focus. For example, a box of cereal may be full of sugar, but will claim to boost concentration, or offer valuable fibre, when far better health benefits could be gained from products with fewer calories.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that the ill-fated Responsibility Deal has been put “on pause” and is expected to be shelved and replaced by a programme that offers greater challenges to the food industry. We’ll soon see exactly how strong that challenge appears to be.

What do you think about food labelling? Do you find it confusing? Tweet us @brocbrainsmag