The labelling debate

The man who invented a new nutrition labelling system

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Sam Tucker of Tucker's Natural
Sam Tucker of Tucker's Natural

Related tags: Nutrition

Australian food labelling laws are currently under close political scrutiny following an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to imported frozen berries.

The health scare has put some momentum behind a parliamentary inquiry held by South Australian Liberal member of parliament, Rowan Ramsey, which recommended a reworking of product labelling, though this hasn’t been implemented.

At the heart of the recommendations is that each item should have a separate reference to the ingredients and the manufacture of goods​," Ramsey said in the inquiry's report last year.

Sam Tucker of South Australian company Tucker's Natural has long been a step ahead of the regulations—and perhaps even consumers.

Since the company launched around seven years ago, they've constantly pushed for better labelling, more transparency and putting greater power in the hands of consumers.

The future is functional

"In year two we were looking at global trends and doing our market analysis, and certainly identified the health and functional food spaces as the future​," says Tucker, who then launched a multifibre and smart snack range.

Accordingly, he was first in line when consumer watchdog Choice’s front-of-pack health stars rating system was approved by food authorities, allowing manufacturers to implement the code.

In the first round of ranking, only three out of 260 foods were given a five star rating in the scheme. Tucker's Natural produces two out of those three.

"From a customer perspective—I don't mean the end consumer—the ratings certainly lend credibility to what we're presenting to our buyers,​” he says.

Just about all of Tucker's Naturals products are developed with such ratings in mind, although sometimes the products don’t fall within the system

He first had “the door slammed on my face​” when developing the portion snack range for the Healthy Kids schools programme.

"We do better than the criteria. We usually beat it. And then they turn around and say, well, no, you don't qualify for some unusual thing​."

In this case, where foods are divided in to green, amber and red, his products fall firmly in to the green product in every single way - except they're classed as processed foods, and there's no green category for processed foods.

Smart Snack system

That prompted Tucker's Natural to make their own rating system, of a sort.

"I said, look, this is ridiculous. Let's create our own way of managing that for our own brand. So we came up with the Everyday Smart Snack logo. We've used that to communicate that we know you can eat it everyday as part of a balanced diet​."

The key to a move like that, Sam Tucker thinks, is to back it up. While the company used to communicate just about everything via packaging, Tucker says it became too much.

Instead, Tucker pushed a vast majority of that information to his company’s website, under a “Smart Snack” portal. Ingredient lists, fibre content and more are all an effort to build trust with the consumer.

“It's something that we need to accept as an industry, that we need to provide as much information to consumers as possible for them to make the right decisions,” he said.

When asked if he thinks the ratings are too stringent, seeing as only three of the 260 products reviewed received five star ratings, Tucker was reluctant to condemn the system.

"The fact that a lot of snacks—and again we're not privy to the list of products—assuming those snacks were processed foods, it shows you that the marketing claims being made on a lot of products are potentially misleading​."

It's a sentiment that Choice shares, saying that a lot of consumers were tired of being misled by labels of “low fat” when the fat could just as likely have been replaced by artificial sweeteners, not really providing tangible health benefits in the long rung.

An imperfect science

There are legitimate grievances with the ratings system. Manufacturers will be the ones to take up the cost of reworking their labelling, and Tucker also acknowledges a lot of people take issue with the fact that the stars will take up valuable marketing space - especially if it's not a particularly high-scoring product.

"I think it's something that we need to accept as an industry, that we need to provide as much information to consumers as possible for them to make the right decisions. Consumers are sensible. They make decisions every day​.

"If a consumer is looking to eat healthy and they're satisfied the criteria will assist that, then it certainly does help to rate products and allow them to make better decisions. If it's an easier thing for the consumer to understand, we're happy with that​."

Related topics: Business, Oceania, Food safety

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