Technical Paper 1:
Obesity in Australia: a need for urgent action
4.5.2 - Food labelling
A food labelling scheme that is clear and comprehensible can be effective in enabling consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and influence consumer behaviour, as well as providing incentives for food companies to improve the nutritional composition of products. In order to be effective, a food labelling system needs to guide people to healthier food and drink choices rather than further confuse them or provide insufficient information on important nutritional messages.
Presenting nutrient information on menu boards at the point of purchase also provides incentives for the food industry to reformulate healthier products and provides significant benefits to consumers.
For example, most people substantially underestimate the energy content of restaurant food, including professionals such as dietitians. Including energy content information on menu items for which people tend to underestimate energy levels has been demonstrated to reduce the likelihood of product purchase and to lead to more negative attitudes towards the product.
Consultations conducted in the development of UK policy suggest that front-of-pack labelling ‘is influencing consumer shopping patterns and helping to accelerate the reformulation of foods by the industry’ moving the retail market towards foods that are lower in fat, salt and added sugar. In conjunction with salt reduction targets, the salt content of products in the UK is now flagged more prominently through the current voluntary front-of-pack nutritional labelling scheme. This may strengthen incentives for the food industry to reformulate their products, as there is evidence that an increasing number of consumers are looking at this information. For example, the number of people looking at labels for salt content in the UK rose by 48% between 2004 and 2007.[67, 97, 98]
The role of the food industry
To achieve a change in the food supply there is a need to work with the food industry. The World Health Organization sees interaction with food manufactures as fundamental to the success of strategies aimed at reducing, for example, the level of salt in food products. Current UK polices involving the industry include working with food manufacturers to expand the range of products that count towards the daily fruit and vegetable intake requirements; work with industry to reduce saturated fat and added sugar levels in foods and reduce portion sizes where appropriate; and work in partnership with the convenience stores sector to increase the availability of healthier food, particularly fruit and vegetables in retail outlets in deprived areas.
The work to reduce levels of saturated fat and sugar in food is initially via a voluntary Code of Good Practice. However, the UK Government has indicated that it will ‘continue to examine the case for a mandatory approach where this might produce greater benefits’.
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Trans fats and labelling: International regulations
Internationally there are some examples of legislation introduced to mandate menu labelling and to ban trans fat use. For example, in two US jurisdictions, New York City (NYC) and King County, Washington, regulations have recently been introduced requiring chain restaurants with 10–15 or more outlets nationally to display calorie counts on their menus. The NYC Health Department estimates that this regulation could reduce the number of people who suffer from obesity by 150,000 over the next five years and prevent over 30,000 cases of diabetes. King County requires restaurants to list calories, carbohydrates, saturated fat and sodium on printed menus. As in a growing number of other US cities and counties, these jurisdictions have also banned the use of artificial trans fats in restaurant meals. Many other US states are now considering legislating to ban the use of trans fats in food service establishments and to introduce restaurant menu labelling.
Evidence suggests that displaying information about restaurant menu items at point of sale or on menus is more effective than making this information available to the public via other means such as on the internet, and may be associated with lower calorie purchases by consumers who see the information. For example, a study in NYC before menu labelling regulations were introduced surveyed patrons of 11 fast-food chains that provided calorie information publicly, either on site or on the internet. Customers of the only chain that voluntarily displayed calorie information at point of purchase reported seeing calorie information significantly more often than other customers.
Over one-third of these customers reported that this information influenced their purchase. Customers of this chain who observed the calorie information purchased significantly fewer calories than other patrons of the same venue.
Enhance food labelling by introducing a national system of food labelling to support healthier choices with simple and comprehensible information on trans fat and saturated fat as well as sugar and salt and standardised serve size. This would apply to food for retail sale as well as on food purchased when eating out and be available in settings such as restaurants food halls and takeaway shops.