There’s a lot of information on any given package. How do you know what’s useful and accurate… and what’s not?
Some label claims are governed by laws that say manufacturers can’t make false claims.
For instance, a can of tomatoes must say “tomatoes”, and the consumer can be pretty confident that there won’t be tuna fish inside when she opens it.
Generally, there are laws that control labeling of:
There are no laws, however, that control other terms. And this is where things can get messy.
Take a look at the picture with this post for example:
The Tesco ‘Healthy Living’ roast chicken sandwich sitting right next to a Kickin Hot Madras Chicken sandwich. Which one would you instinctively choose? The Tesco ‘Healthy Living’ one right? It has lighter packaging, it says big on taste – lower in calories, low in saturates, its’s got to be better? Well look more closely (still on the front packaging, haven’t even had to turn it over to see the info at the back. Ok, so it wins on being slightly lower in calories (by 40 calories – if anyone has listened to anything I have previously said hopefully you will know that it is more about what those calories contain rather than calories itself). Next, it has said it is lower in saturates – well actually the madras chicken one is lower. The madras one is also lower in sugar content and in salt. That is three bad things – saturated fat, sugar and salt.
You can hopefully see how the food industry is tainted with marketing ploys to get you to buy their food.
At first glance, front-of-pack labelling seems like a great idea. Ideally, it’s quick, easy to use, and a convenient shorthand.
However, the front-of-pack label is also a judgement. Eat this, not that. It’s not just information. It’s analysis and evaluation.
A front-of-pack label means that someone else is telling you what to eat.
Good, if that suggestion is informed; reflects the whole body of up-to-date nutritional evidence; and is in the consumer’s best interests. Bad, if that suggestion is determined by dodgy nutritional science, institutional politics, marketing, money grabbing companies, or pressure from industry.
There are four important questions to ask about front-of-pack labels:
For instance, the American Heart Association has endorsed things like:
Sound heart-healthy to you? Not so much.
Conversely, other front-of-pack labeling systems may brand certain foods “unhealthy” or “red light” foods based on a limited set of criteria, when these foods are actually quite an appropriate part of the diet.
For instance, by the “traffic light” guidelines, grass-fed butter, raw nuts, and cold-pressed coconut oil might score as “red light” foods, because they’re so high in fat.
Sugar and all its different names is another confusing issue on food labels.
We could all agree that sucrose – aka table sugar – is definitely sugar. But what about:
There are lots of food substances that are technically sugary, but that don’t get labeled as such. A manufacturer could put other non-table-sugar substances into a food and label it “low-sugar”.
Same holds true for “fat-free” and the use of ingredients such as mono- and diglycerides.
Phrases and terms used are again another misleading problem with labels: Think of “buttery”; “no artificial ingredients”; “light-tasting”; “a nutritious source of fiber”; “made with real fruit”; “part of a healthy breakfast”; etc. Or brand names like “Too Good To Be True”; “Healthy Choice”; “Lean Cuisine”; “Healthy Living”; etc.
These don’t mean anything. But they’re evocative. They conjure up an image that you associate with the product.
Another example is labeling vegetable-based ingredients “cholesterol-free” or sugary foods “fat-free”. These things never had cholesterol or fat in the first place.
Orange juice manufacturers won a victory in the mid-20th century with a battle over who could say “not-from-concentrate”. This makes you think of a nice farmer squeezing oranges in Seville for you, instead of a boiled orange sugary pulp, doesn’t it? that’s unfortunately what labellers are hoping.
Use of terms like these are not regulated. Manufacturers might not be able to say “fresh-squeezed orange juice” but they can say “fresh-squeezed taste”.
Summary and action tips