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Food labelling – how much is too much?

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8 min read
nutrition label

Reading the labels on food packaging can be tricky and, with consumers being more health-conscious than ever, food manufacturers may use misleading or complicated terminology to confuse people into buying unhealthy and highly processed products. 

Because food labelling regulations are so complex, this also makes it harder for consumers to understand them – so, is the obesity crisis caused by lazy consumers who don’t want to read the label, or is there something else at play? 

Pete Martin, Regulatory Affairs Director at Ashbury explains that the main factors behind this confusion surrounding food labelling simply come from an oversaturation of information rather than simple and plain terminology. 

“I think that there’s just so much information available to them now that people don’t really know what they’re looking for anymore. There’s a dissociation between normal everyday people and their food and when you go into a supermarket these days, you’re looking at maybe 40,000 items, you’re looking at brand new flavours, you’re looking at foods from different countries, you’re looking at novel ingredients. 

“Many years ago, you had food information or food labelling as it was, and you might have your ingredients list a name that reflected the actual true identity of the product, or the bits and pieces, like your quantity indication so you know how much you’re buying, the price, all those sorts of things – and you can make a reasonable comparison that’s moved on now. 

Not only would you be looking at products from different countries, but you’ve also got :’Is it vegan? Is it natural? Is it organic? Is it clean labelled? Is it high in sugar?’ And so a consumer these days has got to make so many judgments and make so many sorts of decisions on what they’re looking at. Unless [the consumer is] organised, you’re going out with a list and you actually stick to it religiously. It can be very easy just to pick up whatever you like, and wherever you fancy.”

We know that food labelling has become so extensive compared to previously, and there is certainly a potential for this food labelling to become even more extensive with the inclusion of eco-conscious factors and certifications for the product to be clearly labelled, but surely this regulation helps consumers to make informed choices? 

Are the regulations behind food labelling not working, or is it the implementation of the regulations themselves that automatically make them less likely to work? Pete Martin explains that the UK’s traffic light system is inspiring food labelling outside of the UK, but getting people to look at the nutrition values on the packaging is another huge task entirely. 

“Prior to [nutrition panels being made mandatory], they did exist and what you’ll find is most of our grocers in the UK certainly have used them on most products, meaning the information has been around for a long time. I don’t think consumers are looking at it, and that’s why you’ll now see and really move towards pack labelling. 

“So, you’ve got the front of the pack and in the UK [which looks like a] variety of traffic lights. Sainsbury’s had a circular one, and then the FSA at the time said, ‘Oh, hang on, this is too much going on here. Let’s try and have something that’s uniform’, and [now] we’ve got the current traffic symbols that we have. 

“Now, we aren’t part of Europe. I don’t think the rest of the European Union actually quite liked [the traffic symbols]. They didn’t like the fact that [we were] potentially highlighting certain aspects of certain foods. But what you’ll find now is actually Europe is now looking at making their front-of-pack [food labelling] mandatory. [But will] these schemes actually work? Or which one do they believe will work? 

“I think [food labelling] does give you information, it does allow you to make choices certainly in relation to allergens, certainly in relation to the type of foods you like. Yes, I think it does work. But do people actually use it? And do people actually get into a habit of just buying what they want to buy? Or what do they like? And I think that’s the difference.”

What is specifically going wrong with food labelling? Could it be that the amount of information being given to the consumer is just too great, or are the important parts simply not being highlighted well enough? 

Pete Martin explains that because of the huge amount of information on packaging, text size needs to be small in order for it to fit on the packaging, however, even the font size can make understanding nutrition values difficult for a large number of people – and an even bigger challenge is deciding what information should be a priority.

“I think that the amount of information … People want to know about animal welfare, they want to know about sustainability, whether [a product is] green, they want to know [if it is] vegan, they want to know the nutrition profile. So all this information is getting onto these packs. And even [the font size means that] ‘I can’t read most of it without glasses’. So where is all this information going to go? …  which information is actually the priority? It’s got to sell, I mean, otherwise, there’s no point having it on the shelf. 

“So what’s next? … if it’s down to health, then you’re running down the lines of what actually is nutrition, but then also, it might actually be high in fibre, it might be low in fat, [there] might be a health claim [made] on it … all these types of things to be considered. So again, it’s more information for consumers to look at and understand, whereas a long time ago, you might have old wives’ tales that brain food and oats were good for you or these types of things. Now, you’ve got the science behind it, which is there. And I think it makes things less easy to choose.”

Studies have shown that the claim of low fat could be tricking us into eating more. When people think that they’ve eaten more calories than they actually have, their bodies respond as if they’ve consumed more. So, in theory, if you label a low-fat yoghurt as high fat, people might actually eat less of it. Is that the way it works? Can our brains override all of this? Or are we helpless in the grip of a label? Pete Martin explains our current food labelling may cater to a vast minority, and that it is about condensing this information in order to keep everyone informed. 

“[I would] be interested in labelling low-fat foods high fat by and preventing people from actually using the amount We [as people] are subject to advertising more than we actually realise. If something’s labelled low fat, psychologically, apparently you don’t enjoy it as much either. You actually need to have that feeling of indulgence sometimes to actually feel that feeling of satiety as well, your brain is misled by the marketing, and perhaps by the brand as well. I think it is difficult for us to actually overcome that.” Martin continues: “I think the fact that the Government was looking at this high fat, salt, sugar and the placement within any store, and also the advertising suggests that actually, this further action required rather than just the labelling because the labelling itself will have some effect. 

“…  I do wonder how many people actually want to know these things. My feeling is that there is a small group of the minority who do want to know a lot of information about their food, who do have a lot of interest in this, they want to know… sometimes sugar, the amount of protein, their macros, or whatever else it might be doing. There are people who want to know about animal welfare. 

“My feeling is, though, that the broad majority, the vast majority don’t really look at it. And that’s the issue. There are a lot of people who do want to know, but they want to know such disparate information. There isn’t a lot of space to put it all on there. … The issue is how do you make it effective? How do you look at it? How you actually look makes people think, obviously, stop and think, ‘Oh, that’s probably not so good.’ For me, I think the front of pack schemes are probably the best way forward, certainly to try and overcome our caveman brains.”
Interested in learning more about food labelling, how it works outside of the UK, and how it could be contributing to the obesity crisis? Listen to our full interview with Pete Martin, Regulatory Affairs Director at Ashbury on our podcast “Food labelling – how much information is too much?”

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