Insight from our Legal Expert: The key factors that influence food labelling

* 2 min read

The usefulness of food labelling is influenced by a range of factors. But its function remains the same: to provide clear and correct factual information for consumers to use in their purchasing and consumption decision-making.

The external factors that shape the value of food labelling include policy discussions held in public, such as the reaction to the latest report from the National Obesity Forum. Debates like this can be problematic because each side is telling us very different things about what we should eat. Conflicting messages only result in uncertainty.

In fact, the latest developments around diet, fat and obesity exemplify the damage that can be done to the value of labelling. The likely result is that consumers will not read labels – and therefore not use the information provided to modify their diet and eat more healthily. How can you make an informed choice if you don’t know what a healthy diet looks like?

As a labelling specialist I am not qualified to participate in the debate about what characterises a healthy diet. Our role is to ensure clarity and veracity. With our clients we put a lot of effort into getting the correct information onto labels. It’s unfortunate that academics can potentially undermine a label’s utility by muddying the water with conflicting advice.

The problem created by confusing public message is compounded by the restrictions on what can be put onto packaging about ‘health’ and healthy choices. It’s something that I’ll examine in more depth in Mainz, but my view is that the health claims provisions of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) are detrimental to the public health agenda, particularly regarding obesity.

NHCR restricts statements about health on packaging to those products that can carry an authorised health claim. Such claims are not available for the key nutrients that in the public debate are linked to obesity; sugar and fat. Instead NHCR links health to the presence of vitamins, minerals and other minor nutrients. No one denies these are important to an overall diet but should they really be the focus of all our health messaging on pack?

Within the context of a confusing public debate, you must wonder whether it is time to reconsider regulation like NCHR. We ought to allow more direct and timely confirmation of the health benefits in reducing fat, sugar and calorie intake at the point of purchase.  

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