Nutrition Meets Food Science

Are food labels communicating effectively with consumers

Food labels provide information so that consumers can make an informed choice before purchase. To effectively communicate, food labels must satisfy these conditions: (1) reduce information overload; secondly make the written word more easily understood. Over time consumers are increasingly faced with an overload of complex information. Essentially a food label is a dialogue between a food product and the diet. Does it fulfil this intent?

Information overload: Nutrition labelling first introduced in 2008 (PFA), only required declaring the “big four” nutrient amounts; energy (kcal), protein, carbohydrate (including quantity of sugar) and fat. From these four, within 12 years information has gone up to 11 and more (LD 2020). An edible oil product declares 12-14 nutrients, five of which are zero. Informing consumers that vegetable oils do not contain protein, carbohydrate, sugar, cholesterol and sodium is unlikely to influence purchase. Earlier, a disclaimer was required when vegetable oils labels claimed “cholesterol free”. Should not mandatory declarations be made relevant to product? Further, declaring compositional nutrients, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids, the label is more suited for a classroom lesson in lipid chemistry than assisting in informed choice.

Minimizing complexity: There is an ongoing debate eluding settlement on whether nutrients should be declared per serve (g/ml) alongside a household measure. When nutrients are associated with a household measure, it intuitively suggests a relationship with the diet. One remembers household units not metrics. Consumer language is “a cup of coffee” or a “teaspoon of sugar” and overconsumption is easily expressed as “one too many” or avoid “ a second helping’ or limiting to ‘ just half a slice will do”. Numerical expressions are suited for commercial information (MRP, quantity, date marking). A buttermilk product declares 125mg sodium per 100ml and 100g papad declares 4530mg. On a serve of 200ml buttermilk and a single papad (15g), the salt content is 250mg and 680mg (the daily recommendation being not more than 2000mg). The linkage to diet is apparent. The knowledge empowers consumers. In absence of empowerment, they become vulnerable to disinformed webchats and fake information. Does the label encourage consumer empowerment?

Nutrition Facts label (US) is the shortest version of a conversation between product and diet. European countries declare nutrient amounts in 100g/ml of product with an option. Information per portion/consumption unit can be provided as well but not instead of per 100g/ml. FSS LD (2020), requires both. Arguments and counters are many: but how much information does the consumer need or want? Is there a need to declutter labels.

Dr. Joseph Lewis

Chairman- Regulatory Affairs Committee, PFNDAI

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