Food labels are confusing. They can sometimes require a bit of time and effort to work out the nutritional content of a realistic portion size, so more often then not people don’t bother, is this what the companies want?
Many companies try and bend the truth by using unrealistic portion sizes on their front of pack labelling to trick you into believing the product is healthier than it is, for example ‘half of this chocolate bar contains…’ come on now, how many people eat half of a chocolate bar? Whereas the back of pack labelling should state what is in 100g/ml of the product. I’ve attached an example below showing a front of pack label for cereal, has anyone ever weighed out 30g of cereal? Chances are you would be underwhelmed with how little it equates to.
Below I have attached a great post by Joseph Agu explaining in more detail.
The Misconceptions of Food Labelling
The aim of food labelling is to provide consumers with the nutritional information of certain food products and to help with food selection. However, as I am sure all of you know, food labels are often confusing, with several different layouts, colour combinations, percentages of daily amounts and health claims.
Types of Food Labelling
For all pre-packed foods, labelling on the back of the packaging is mandatory, and should be presented as per 100g/ml or per portion. Conversely, labelling on the front of the pack is voluntary unless a health claim has been made, such as “low in fat” or “high in fibre”.
Although in most cases it is voluntary, approximately 80% of packaged foods still display some form of front-pack labelling. The two most common systems employed are:
- Traffic Light System – The colour of the criteria (for example, fat, sugars, salt) indicates whether the food is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in that nutrient. See picture above.
- Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) – The GDA system is in the process of being replaced by Reference Intake (RI). The GDA is a guide to how much of a certain nutrient you should eat per day, and therefore on packaging a nutrient is shown as a percentage of the GDA/RI. See picture above.
Issues with Food Labelling
• The GDA is based on an average female’s assumed needs – 2000kcal, 260g of carbohydrates, 50g of protein, etc. These generic values are not based on exercise levels, body mass or muscle mass, and therefore do not apply to the majority of the population.
• Certain manufacturers may deliberately exclude the GDA or Traffic Light System on their product as it could deter consumers from purchasing it. This is normally the case with ‘unhealthy’ products, such as chocolate bars.
• Whereas, other foods add in non-GDA labels, such as “High in Omega 3” or “High in Fibre” in a GDA format, without stating the grams or the GDA percentage, to trick people into thinking their product has more nutritional value than others.
• Many health claims are unregulated or lenient. “Reduced Fat” and “Reduced Sugar” do not necessarily mean low in sugar/fat. To include these quotes on the packaging, foods must have 25% less sugar/fat than the regular version of the same food.
• The GDA or Traffic Light System is in many cases based on an arbitrary portion size. Some great examples include: “½ of this pizza provides” and “1/3 of a pie contains”. This means foods cannot be compared and provides an unrealistic perspective of the amount of certain nutrients in that food.
• Does anyone add up all of the GDA’s of one macronutrient to get close to 100%? Would this encourage extra consumption of certain nutrients if they hadn’t reached 100% of the GDA in one day?
• Food labels may not accurately reflect what is in the packet.
• Many people misinterpret or may not have the nutritional knowledge to make use of the information on a food label. For example, what is the difference between a saturated and unsaturated fat?
• A food containing a significant amount of ‘healthy fats’ and micronutrients could be coded as red in the Traffic Light System when it may provide more nutritional value than a food coded green.
• Food labelling is a useful tool to gain basic nutritional information on a food source. The information on the back of the pack can be more informative and less confusing than the front-of-pack labelling.
• When using food labels to select foods, check the portion size they are referring to “100g”, “one biscuit”, “per serving” before making a decision.
• As nutritional demands are so individualised, GDA is only slightly better than useless. Consider your activity levels, muscle mass, goals and what nutritional content you want from the food.
• Do not be fooled by health claims on packaging - the rules for including these claims on packaging are not as strict as they lead you to believe.