Give food labelling the red light

The state’s attempt to colonise our kitchens by crudely labelling food ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is deeply unhealthy.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Consultation alert: for those of you easily made nauseous by bureaucratic jargon, look away now.

‘The new Provision of Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 (FIR) will make it mandatory for most pre-packaged foods to carry nutrition labelling from 2016. For UK food businesses, this will require those already providing such information to revise their labelling, and others to begin nutrient labelling for the first time. This is therefore an ideal opportunity to review the provision of additional nutrition labelling that is provided voluntarily on the front of packs.’

Don’t you just love how Whitehall’s racy writing style draws you in? Eyelid-weighting prose aside, the gist of the new consultation on food labelling is that the UK government wants to make the information we receive on food packaging more consistent. Now, it is quite right that food producers tell you what is in the food you eat if it is less than obvious. With simple foods, like fruit and vegetables, meat, milk, cheese and so forth, it is really not necessary. For anything else, there could be a host of reasons why it would be worth knowing what we are consuming, from the pursuit of a particular diet to the avoidance of certain kinds of ingredients.

But the consultation is not about information. This is not about what we eat but what we should not eat; it’s an attempt to encourage and cajole us to eat a government-approved diet. First, all of the information is provided in relation to guideline daily amounts (GDAs). Now, if this was to give us some idea of how much of a particular vitamin or mineral we should be aiming to get, then that’s possibly useful. That said, these GDAs are catch-all figures that are expected to inform the eating habits of burly rugby players, old-age pensioners, expectant mothers and skinny teenagers alike, despite the fact that their nutritional needs are all very different. Just how useful are they likely to be?

But this consultation is about the limits we should impose on ourselves, lest we consume too many calories or too much saturated fat or salt. Just to reinforce this emphasis on limits, the consultation subtly raises again the idea of colour-coding different levels of fats, calories, etc. This tends to be put in terms of a ‘traffic-light’ system: red equals avoid, amber suggests moderation, green means eat as much as you like. Presumably, we are meant to develop a Pavlovian reaction to food, drooling when we see green and feeling repelled by red.

The practical difficulties of such labelling are quickly revealed by the questions in the consultation. Firstly, there are lots of foods that are high in fat that are also ‘healthy’. Olive oil is, obviously, pure fat. Do you give it a red light, despite the remarkable health-giving properties often attributed to it? The same applies to cheese, butter, cream, sugar and so on, which may be demonised in some quarters but are wonderful in their own right or are essential elements of many popular foods. Foods clearly only make sense in the context of how they are used and our wider diets.

Which leads to another question: do you give information about the contents of an average portion – whatever that might be – or do you give a standard guide per 100 grams, even though in practice you might use a lot more or a lot less than 100 grams? The first one is more practical, but it is open to a bit of ‘spin’ by manufacturers. So you could give a portion size for, say, chocolate biscuits as ‘one biscuit’, to make your food label look healthy. But who eats just one biscuit? Giving a guide per 100 grams makes comparisons between foods easier, but may not give you much sense of how much fat, salt or sugar you will actually consume.

The difficulties just keep on coming. Do you provide information on the food cooked or raw? If so, which cooking method do you use when a food can be cooked in a number of different ways? How do you allow for the inconsistency of handmade foods, where the nutritional profile could vary quite a bit? Who should the rules apply to? Big manufacturers can afford the cost of getting their foods tested and analysed; for small producers, it would be an expensive nightmare.

All of this assumes that the government knows best, that there is an obviously correct level of these various dietary elements above which we risk ill-health. Yet the claim that we should consume just six grams of salt to avoid high blood pressure is based on very shaky evidence, as is the idea that we must restrict our diets to just a certain proportion of fat or saturated fat to avoid heart disease or obesity.

But the real problem is the assertion that the state should decide what is or is not appropriate to eat and then signal this literally on the front of just about every packet of food we buy. The very complex reasons that we have to balance up when we choose one food over another – pleasure, nutrition, price, mood, and so on – are reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’. We should not stand for this colonisation of our kitchens.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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