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Food Labelling – A consumer minefield?

Posted on January 5th, 2011 by Alf | Print

If Rip Van Winkle, waking up after his 20 year sleep, wandered into a 21st century supermarket he would be astounded at the range and diversity of goods, the colorful packaging, and the staggering choice available to the consumer. He would gaze uncomprehendingly at the labeling with its kilojoules or calories, serve size, list of additives etc. While there is now a degree of public awareness of many of the terms used on labels, the whole area is quite literally, a minefield. Part of the problem is what is on labels serves at least two separate functions – to inform the consumer so they are better able to make a choice, and to entice the consumer into buying a particular product in preference to another. These two conflicting interests understandably create some difficulties for consumers.

The importance of food labels was recently illustrated quite well when, in a trip to our local supermarket and attracted by what seemed a reasonable price, I bought a pack of frozen prawns or shrimp as the Americans call them. The label claimed the prawns were Australian but there was no other information on the label other than the name of the supplier. Because I have my doubts about how farmed prawns (as well as other seafood) are reared and what they are fed, I prefer wild prawns.  As there was nothing on the label to indicate whether they were farmed or wild, I decided to contact the supplier and ask. I got back a fairly quick response from the distributor. The prawns were wild, not farmed, and – a complete surprise to me – they were “processed” in Malaysia. Now you don’t need degrees in geography to work out Malaysia, while relatively close to Australia, is still a long way away so it begged the question – what happened to the prawns from the time they were caught in Australia, sent to Malaysia for “processing’, then returned to Australia where they eventually found their way into a supermarket freezer and labeled as Australian prawns? I got more of the story from the distributor who informed me that yes, the prawns were frozen in Australia, sent in this state to Malaysia, thawed and processed, refrozen and sent back to Australia where I the consumer bought them and re-thawed them prior to cooking. Now the reason I mention this is because there was nothing on the label to indicate:

1) whether the prawns were farmed or wild
2) they had been sent to another country for processing and
3) they had been frozen and thawed more than once.

The above is a simple example of how difficult it is for consumers to get all of the facts they require even though there are now regulations in all developed countries that require retailers and suppliers to provide basic information to consumers.  There are lots of good and valid reasons why much of the food we buy is required to have labels. One is for the protection of the people who have an allergy or intolerance to certain food components or additives or particular medical conditions. Examples include people with celiac disease, phenylketonuria, lactose or fructose intolerance, diabetics, peanut and other allergies etc. Another is for people grappling with weight problems and counting calories or kilojoules, while yet another is for those who have lifestyle or philosophical reasons for why they need to know what is in a food. These include vegans or vegetarians, certified organic or biodynamic food consumers, and people concerned about genetically modified food. Increasingly, too, consumers want to be able to buy locally grown and produced food, because of perceived freshness, which probably explains the growth of farmers markets around the world. Foods grown locally also have a potentially lower energy consumption per unit because transport costs are lower. For products coming for elsewhere in the world, some want to know what they are buying has been produced ethically and look for products endorsed or labeled by organizations like Fair Trade (www.fairtrade.net) or Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org) for example.

However, despite the labels, there is often information missing. For example, the country of origin of the food is not the same thing as where the food was packaged or processed, the sugar content is not always easy to work out, the amounts of the various artificial sweeteners are not normally included and the term “vegetable oil” can mean many things – including Palm oil, which we will discuss another time. There is also information that is misleading, deceptive or ambiguous. Just a few example include the so-called “lite” oils, the “pure oils”, the term “cholesterol-free” on bottles of vegetable oils (all plant oils contain very little cholesterol), “98% fat free (is this not the same as 2% fat?), food labeled (but not certified) as “organically grown” or “minimal spray” which can mean anything as can the term “free range”. And of course, even though consumers may know what is in the food, in the case of additives such as preservatives where numbers rather than names are given, they need books to decipher what the numbers represent, and other books to advise them as to possible effects of some of these additives.

It is clear there is a conflict between the consumer’s need to know what is in their food, with the retailers and producers desires to market the food in any way they can. Governments are in the middle of this, with complaints from consumers there is not enough information, or the information is misleading or just plain wrong, while retailers and producers argue the excessive bureaucratic requirements add to costs and these have to be passed on to consumers.

Promoting Good Health has long had concerns about the quality of information provided to consumers.  Poor quality information affects your ability to make informed decisions about what to purchase. We also recognize information overload is a major problem in our modern and increasingly complex society.  So while we live in an information rich age, this information is absolutely useless if you do not understanding what the information means and what the short and long term implications or consequences of it may be for your health.  It is understandably difficult for anyone to assess the information or claims on food and supplement labels, in brochures and on the websites of retailers and producers – even when you do have the time to do it! That is why Promoting Good Health is developing a range of educational resources to help you make decisions about what to buy and how you may wish to live your life.  These resources will be based on the most up to date scientific data rather than a vested commercial interest or philosophy. We also want these resources to be easy for the layman to read, listen to, watch and understand.  It is no good using the latest scientific data if you can’t understand it or understand what it means for you and your family.  As we discussed in our first few blogs, Promoting Good Health is a massive subject encompassing almost every aspect of what we eat, what we think and what we do every day.  This means we will be very busy for a very long time making all the eBooks, audio and video products necessary to help you live a healthy life.  Products currently available or in development are eBooks on fish oils, organic food, olive oil, milk, and vegetarian food. These are simple books written in question/answer format and specially designed to help the consumer navigate the food and supplement maze. We are also working on more substantial projects including DVD presentations and a number of full-length eBooks, particularly about the potential health risks of environmental chemicals and pollutants.  All these products will be available through the online store of this website.  We are enjoying creating them and we hope you will find them both informative and useful.

Meanwhile, stay healthy and happy.