“Food labels are not a silver bullet to solve the challenge of NCDs”


Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are of global concern. Representing 71% of deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) cites unhealthy diet as a major risk factor directly or indirectly associated with their prevalence.

Among the initiatives proposed to improve public health, food labels come up regularly. From nutrition labeling programs – such as Nutri-Score or traffic light labels – to nutrition and health claims, food labels are commonplace in developed countries.

In developing countries, however, these labels may be less common.

In South Africa, for example, certain labeling is mandatory: food products must legally have an ingredient list, and any product with a nutrient content claim – such as “fat free”, “fortified”, ” skinny “,” weak “or” reduced “- is also obliged to wear a nutritional information panel.

However, specific health claims are not permitted. And no study to date has examined how the addition of health claims can be received in the region.

Today, researchers from South Africa and the United States set out to determine whether health claims on food labels would help or prevent South African consumers from making better food choices.

Pending health claims legislation

It is believed that more detailed nutritional information on food labels should theoretically empower more consumers to make informed choices. Using scientifically validated health claims to express nutritional benefits is one such way.

In other countries, examples of permitted health claims could include evidence of a reduced risk of cancer from the consumption of grain products, fruits and vegetables containing fiber. In the United States, for example, associations can also be made between dietary saturated fat and cholesterol and the risk of coronary heart disease.

South Africa has taken steps to adopt regulations allowing the use of health claims on foods. However, his bill including guidelines on the use of selected health claims, such as the health benefits associated with consuming low GI foods, has been on hold for years.

“After seven years in the form of a project, we still do not know if this legislation will be promulgated”, noted the authors of a new study published in the journal Appetite. Lessons learned from this research, the authors noted, could be useful in informing policymakers and policymakers about this pending bill.

The researchers conducted ‘in-depth’ qualitative interviews with a ‘targeted sample’ of South African professional and consumer participants, during which they were invited to share their views and reflect on their experiences with the use. of food labels to communicate health information.

Barriers to literacy, readability and language

The results revealed that a number of practical barriers to the use of the label exist in South Africa. These barriers, the researchers noted, “reduce or even negate” the ability of labels to inform healthier food choices, regardless of the presence of health claims on food labels.

GettyImages / Alistair Berg

Literacy has been identified as one of these obstacles. According to World Bank data, the illiteracy rate in South Africa is 13%. Beyond reading and writing, this raises concerns that a lack of education could hamper consumers’ understanding of digital data on food labels.

Readability was highlighted as another challenge, with small font size seen as one of the most frequently mentioned barriers to using labels.

In a country with 11 official languages, it’s no surprise that language presented another barrier. While according to South African law, information on food labels must only be presented in English, many South African food labels also include other languages ​​that are not among the official 11, such than French and Portuguese.

As around 40% of South African food is sold in informal markets rather than supermarkets, food items are often not labeled and therefore do not provide any nutritional information.

The socio-economic situation of consumers was also reported as a challenge. “The idea that consumers would make better food choices based on information on food labels, including health claims, assumes that seeing an alternative is an option.” noted the study authors.

A multisectoral approach

From a stakeholder perspective, concerns included competing interests, siled responsibilities and enforcement issues. “At the heart of the challenges seems to be a poor understanding of everyone’s responsibilities, as well as a broken trust”, underlines the report.

South African cuisine Graham Montanari
GettyImages / Graham Montanari

For study co-author Melvi Todd, from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, there needs to be a much more integrated approach among all stakeholders to align around a common goal: that of ” improve public health and reduce NCDs.

“Food labels are not the silver bullet to solve our problems with NCDs. This is especially the case in South Africa where so much food is sold without a label.

According to the study, with some improvements, certain labels can potentially prompt healthier choices, for some consumers, from time to time. Ultimately, however, any food labeling intervention in South Africa will still leave a large and growing share of the market – especially those who are marginalized.

south africa gustavofrazao
GettyImages / gustavofrazao

Having a healthy population is good for both government and industry, the researcher told FoodNavigator. It’s good for the government because it reduces the financial burden of disease, and it’s good for the food industry because “if people are sick and can’t work, they have less money to spend” . “It is in everyone’s best interests to make our people healthier.

How does Todd suggest the nation achieve this goal? “As a company sets goals to achieve its goal by integrating the correct actions in all departments; government and industry must therefore respond to the challenge through a systems-based approach, with strategy and goals in all areas that ultimately affect how and what people eat ”, he told this publication.

Such a strategy should address food and nutrition education, food availability and promotion, usable labeling (beyond information that requires “a food science degree to interpret”), and a plan to provide healthy food to “people in economic need”.

The responsibility of food manufacturers “goes beyond compliance”

So what does this mean for food manufacturers in particular? Todd argues that the food industry must “realize that its responsibility goes beyond compliance” – notably, labeling in accordance with the law.

“We live in a world where we use the terms ‘corporate citizenship’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’, but the real corporate social responsibility of anyone who makes food is to donate the food that feeds them.

“Just putting a label on a product and saying ‘We put the information out there’ is not correct. This also applies to food manufacturers around the world because a massive amount of our food comes from other countries. “

South African food label Tassii
GettyImages / Tassii

Education, whether initiated by governments or food manufacturers, is also essential, Todd argued.

“Good health and good nutrition unlock = a person’s possibilities for the rest of their life. Let us help people, including young people, to understand this in a tangible way. Being told what the proportion of vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein should be on your plate is boring and doesn’t really help anyone figure out how important nutrition is for the rest of your life.

The researcher continues: “COVID is a fantastic example of how we’ve seen the private sector step in to help with vaccines. Let’s have more of this, but for education. Education changes lives.

Source: Appetite
“Multi-stakeholder perspectives on food labeling and health claims: qualitative perspectives from South Africa”
Published online July 21, 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105606
Authors: Melvi Todd, Timothy Guetterman, Gunnar Sigge, Elizabeth Joubert


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