Food labelling is not enough

The demand for more food labelling is once again growing following a couple of recent initiatives. But I remain unconvinced that – on its own – this approach can deliver healthier eating.

The first initiative came from Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. She argues that products should have a label stating the exercise needed to burn off the calories created by the foods. This, she says, will help people maintain a healthy weight.

Then the food manufacturer Mars warns that some of its sauces are so high in salt, fat and sugar that they should be eaten only once a week.

It is hard to disagree with Ms Cramer’s advice and Mars’s admission is certainly welcome – though the cynic in me wonders if Mars would have done this if it really thought there would be a significant impact on sales.

But, as an outside observer, I do have reservations about the emphasis on labelling.

First adding ever more rules and regulations is a job creation scheme for the expensive parasite trades, as any quick google search of ‘food regulation’ will show.

There, you will find lawyers and software companies offering to help clients meet minimum legal requirements. Their emphasis is on complying with the law rather than providing healthy food!!

Secondly, I wonder how effective labelling is on its own. When one set of rules fails to change behaviour, the labelling lobby respond by demanding even stronger warnings and advice rather than asking whether a more broadly based strategy would be more successful.

Surely experts like Ms Cramer need to look beyond their own bunker – particularly when they appear in the media.

The interviews she gave about her latest initiative contained lots of headline grabbers – for example that it takes about 43 minutes to run off the calories created by eating a quarter of a large pizza.

But nowhere did she suggest that the healthier option in many cases was to try the home-made option.

Surely the best way to ensure you are not stuffing yourself full of fattening salt and sugar is not to ration your consumption of Dolmio but make the tomato sauce yourself – which is hardly difficult. Instead of ‘occasional’ use, as Mars recommends, the healthiest option is ‘never’.

Ms Cramer’s approach illustrates the way in which those who take on the food industry seem focused on their area of expertise, while the supermarkets operate a much more coherent strategy.

Sometimes it appears that investigative journalists, food labellers, scientists and marketing specialists are too happy ploughing their own furrows rather than working together to challenge the supermarkets with a cohesive strategy.

If you doubt the shared interest of the supermarkets, look at the way the promote themselves. In my local Tesco, there appears to be many more industrial products on sale than ingredients.

Yet the shop has EASY, FRESH and CHOICE, emblazoned several times on its external walls.

The supermarkets have seized ownership of these words. The goal must be to reclaim those words for home-made food and change the perceptions the food industry fights so effectively to present.

Of course this includes examining the contents of their products, but it also means challenging the image they present of themselves.

Perhaps a first step would be to persuade customers – by repeating the message time and again – that they should ask this simple question when they go round their supermarket shelves: “If I made this meal myself would it be cheaper cheaper, healthier, tastier and as convenient.”

The answer won’t always be yes because we all have busy lives. But if we get into the habit of making our own meals more often, then there will be less need for us to worry too much about the contents notes on the product labels.


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