Food label confusion

By Amanda Johnson 23/10/2009 2


It was interesting to see the whole issue of food labelling covered on Campbell Live last night.

Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson, when approached by Campbell Live, was unable to even read the food label presented to her (she had the wrong glasses on) and commented that a lot of people ‘don’t necessarily have such an interest in the label’. I would disagree. Focus group research with consumers has demonstrated consumer demand for front-of-pack labels.

This issue is not new. UK consumer research by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) in the late 1990s investigated nutrition labelling and found that levels of understanding were low, with labels described as ‘complicated, frustrating and illegible’. Terms such as ‘carbohydrate’, ‘saturates’ and ‘sodium’ were poorly understood and ‘kilojoules’ were perceived as irrelevant to adults. As a result of this research, the IGD recommended the use of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) on food packaging to help consumers understand how the amounts of nutrients in foods relate to the daily requirements. For example GDAs for energy were recommended to be 2000 calories and 2500 calories for women and men respectively and for fat, 70g and 95g for women and men respectively. This at least helped shed some light on what the figures on the label actually meant for the average adult.

Simple traffic light labels have been suggested as an effective way to display nutrition information on a front-of-pack label. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency in 2006 unveiled its own traffic light system and since then this has been adopted by various manufacturers and retailers. Food products with traffic light labels on the front of the pack show you at a glance if the food you are thinking about buying contains high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, by using a red, amber or green colour scheme. The more green lights, the healthier the choices.

The traffic light system may be worth adopting here — although it is important to remember that there is a place for all foods in a balanced diet; it’s eating foods in the right proportions that makes a diet healthy or unhealthy. This may be stating the obvious, but we should, of course, be eating lots of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, moderate amounts of lean meat and lower fat dairy products, and very small amounts of fats and sugars.

Personally, I think most of us are interested in what’s in our food and do want to know its nutritional composition. Food labels as they stand are both complex and confusing to interpret and we need a system in New Zealand that can be adopted by all retailers and manufacturers to ensure the nutritional content of foods is easy to understand. If the same system is agreed on by everyone, this will help to ensure consistency and easy comparison of different food products.


2 Responses to “Food label confusion”

  • I think you raise some very good points. Any labelling system needs to find the right balance of covering all the necessary information while remaining easy to understand. I find the system used on many breakfast cereals quite useful, where they provide the % daily intake per serving. Although even this has several problems, in that % daily intake will vary from individual to individual and also I think most people cannot visualise what a single serving is. From what I have observed, many people eat more than a single serving of breakfast cereal in one sitting.
    Perhaps the Ministry needs to focus on educating the public on serving sizes and what an appropriate % daily intake is for different individuals. Given that the government wants to focus on numeracy and literacy (and not on science) perhaps teaching people to read the information on foods is an opportunity to put these skills into practice.
    Also, I am a little disturbed that we have a minister who can’t even carry the glasses she needs around with her.