Food labeling: from theory to practice
Ensuring an adequate decision making about food consumption is important for everyone considering the worldwide prevalence of chronic noncommunicable diseases and the raising consumption of sugars, trans fat and salt contained in processed and ultraprocessed foods.
It is well known that the food environment is one of the main determinants of food choices and the access to food, but also that knowledge about the food characteristics contribute to an adequate choice.
In this context the nutritional labeling is very important, associated with other actions, with mandatory information of the food composition.
But the practice has many complications! When selecting a food to interpret its characteristics we face:
Technical terms that difficult the understanding:
Sugar: the information in the nutritional table expressed in the term 'carbohydrates' does not show how much and what type of sugar has in the product.
Salt: it is described as sodium and it is necessary to make conversions to know the total amount of salt.
Trans fat: often appears with 0g and ** in the nutritional table. But, this information is about the portion, not of the total amount of it in the product.
Next step: look at the ingredients list!
And in the ingredients list, in a very small letter ... more difficulty!
Sugar can be described as glucose, corn syrup, nectars, fructose, sucrose, invert sugar, honey, dextrose... and so on ...
Salt may be contained in the various '… sodium' ingredients usually in end of the list. Only sometimes a product contains the term 'salt' itself.
Trans fat is described as hydrogenated vegetable fat in the list.
Non-standard and unusual portions:
It becomes difficult the comparison of products in decision making. And the amount often don’t represent the actual consumption of the product. Have you ever seen "30g portion or 2 and ½ of biscuit"?
This lack of standardization contributes a lot to the ‘0g of trans fat’ found in the nutritional table.
I mean, it's really complicated!
In Brazil, an IDEC survey made in 2016, led by the nutritionist Ana Paula Bortolleto, shown that consumers have difficulties to understand the information in the labels. 40% of them reported partial or very little understanding about the nutritional label content, indicating as critical points the letter size, the use of technical terms and a visual pollution of the label.
This survey emphasized the need to a brief information in front of the packaging to help in understanding the label, using the ingredient not the nutrient, making it more efficient. The portion standardization per package or its indication in 100g was also identified as a need.
Ecuador introduced traffic light colors associated with the low, medium and high levels of the critical nutrients, as well as the inclusion of the actual amount of refined sugar and salt. This system was highly praised by consumers there.
In Chile, black stamps alert to an excessive amount of the critical nutrients.
In some countries such as Australia, UK, Canada, USA and Brazil some companies voluntarily put these informations in the packaging.
IDEC recently launched an campaign to pressure the regulatory agencies to improve the food labeling. However, in many countries, regulatory measures to processed and ultraprocessed food face pressures from the food industry, which consequently needs to modify the composition of their products to maintain the sales or withdraw from the market.
IDEC. Consumidores apoiam mudanças nos rótulos, aponta pesquisa do IDEC. Disponível em: http://www4.planalto.gov.br/consea/comunicacao/noticias/2016/consumidores-apoiam-mudancas-nos-rotulos-aponta-pesquisa-do-idec. Acesso em 06 de agosto de 2017.
IDEC. O rótulo pode ser melhor. Revista IDEC. 2016. Disponível em: https://www.idec.org.br/em-acao/revista/rotulo-mais-facil/materia/o-rotulo-pode-ser-melhor. Acesso em 07 de agosto de 2017.
Díaz AA, Veliz PM, Rivas-Mariño G, Vance Mafla C, Martínez Altamirano LM, Vaca Jones C. Etiquetado de alimentos en Ecuador: implementación, resultados y acciones pendientes. Rev Panam Salud Publica. 2017;41:e54.