Though the government is taking its sweet time in deciding on a preferred approach to food labelling, Australians are increasingly showing that their intolerance towards obesity and the high-fat, high-calorie foods that are a part of its rise.
In the face of overweight and obesity levels among children doubling since 1985, and the same in adults rising from 37% in 1990 to 61% today, the country is indicating that there is strong public support for the introduction of policy initiatives aimed at creating a healthier food environment.
Massive support for traffic lights
Indeed, a recent study found that eight out of 10 participants were in favour of traffic light and kilojoule menu labelling. They also favoured reformulation to reduce the fat, salt and sugar content of processed foods, and the regulation of marketing avenues for unhealthy food and drinks to children.
What’s more, two-thirds of those surveyed showed support for taxation policies and controls on food company sponsorship of sport and education programmes. The research was co-authored by Victoria’s Obesity Policy Coalition and Cancer Council Victoria.
Despite the survey’s focus on food marketing and methods directed at children, for the most part, non-parents were just as likely as parents to support restrictions.
The traffic light system will be adopted in Britain next year, while America is proposing a similar system that offers ratings as well as a colour code. But the Australian federal government has rejected recommendations by consumer and health groups for traffic lights on the basis that there is insufficient evidence to prove its effectiveness. The industry is also dead set against the system.
The government has since sponsored a working party chaired by the secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, Jane Halton, to look further into labelling. The group is currently unwilling to comment at this stage, but it will meet again in December with some findings.
While the traffic light system appears to be dead in the water, a star system, similar to the energy star system currently on white goods, shows some promise, with support coming on the back of the Blewett review of food labelling last year. Such a system would provide a nutrient profile score measuring overall quality of the food.
Land of confusion
One of the main reasons for each lobby advocating a different method of labelling—or maintaining the status quo—is that it can be hard for consumers to understand the numbers presented before them on a packet.
For example, Choice, the Australian consumer watchdog, recently researched serving sizes across a range of products and learnt that there was no standard definition of a serving. This means that sneaky manufacturers can succeed in misleading even the most health-conscious consumers if their maths skills lag behind their dietary knowledge.
The Choice study found that out of 40 corn chip products checked, the serving size could range from 25g to 100g. And the range of serving sizes was even wider out of 32 popcorn products, varying from 13g to 100g.
And this brings us back to the research at the beginning of this article. Such a high number in favour of label changes clearly suggests that they do not fully understand or trust the information that is currently provided.
However a young researcher in New Zealand, Michelle Bouton of the University of Canterbury, has just hit on a system that translates label calories into real terms. Her idea does so by telling consumers how long they need to exercise to burn off the calories, rather than merely listing the figures.
She found that labels that showed calories alone had little or no impact on consumers’ behaviour or intentions to exercise.
However, when the calories were converted into an exercise quotient, such as “you need to jog for 40 minutes to burn off all the calories in this chocolate bar”, their perception was very different.
Having measured this effect with unhealthy and healthier foods, the exercise label turned out to be far more effective in encouraging future exercise—and it also made people feel more guilty.
Bouton also found that 80% of participants wished that nutritional food labelling was easier to understand and 55% said they had no idea what 1700kJ was in calories.
From these findings it is evident that many consumers are lacking knowledge of how to read nutritional information correctly, and that they would prefer to have a labelling system that is easier to understand.
Even though the Halton working party is not planning to consider this workout-based approach to labelling, it should still be open to looking at real-life standards that people can relate to. Currently, labels are not user-friendly, while options like the traffic light system can be too vague to be insightful.
But hopefully something useful will come soon. Australia needs all the help it can get in its battle against growing weight.
Editor's note: Does what you read the nutrition box make sense to you or do you find yourself making an educated guess? Let us know in the comments below.