Consumer's CEO debates food labelling with NEXT magazine writer Emma Clifton.
Research conducted by the University of Auckland found fewer than half of all packaged foods sold in New Zealand met nutritional criteria to carry health claims. NEXT magazine asked Consumer's CEO to weigh in on food labelling and have allowed us to republish their debate.
Do we need formal labelling on food products?
Sue Chetwin is Consumer NZ's chief executive officer.
Are you crazy? Let the nanny state tell us what to eat? Well,
actually yes because allowing the market and competition to
decide has made us what we are today; one of the fattest countries
on the planet. When we press the flesh, we really mean it.
Great big wads of blubber.
It was the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Airforce at
Ohakea 3 years ago that made me realise size matters. Tens of
thousands pitched up to see the big planes on show. What piqued
my interest more were the jumbos lumbering round on the ground.
These were not slightly overweight luvvies displaying
unfashionable muffins. They were obese, seriously. We pillory Americans for being oversized but our own problem is
bigger than Texas. The latest New Zealand Health Survey finds
nearly a third of Kiwi adults are obese. More than 10% of kids are
obese and 21% of them are overweight.
Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu at the University of Auckland has led
a telling study into the quality of packaged foods on supermarket
shelves across Australia and New Zealand. Fewer than half could
be regarded as healthy. But what about the information food
manufacturers do provide? Faced with selling a product that’s
more than 50% sugar, the food marketer doesn’t hesitate.
Accentuate the positive – forget sugar, emphasise the product’s
low-fat content instead. Low-fat and fat-free claims can even turn
up on products that don’t normally contain fat, like lollies.
What about serving size information? Again useless because we
allow manufacturers to set the rules. A recent Consumer report
found no consistency across comparable products and some
serving sizes were unrealistically small. A pizza that fit on a small
serving plate supposedly had eight servings – that’s 50g each. Some big players have signed up to a voluntary health star rating
system, which will give consumers at-a-glance information on the
front of packs about the nutritional value of the food they’re eating.
If there’s not full industry acceptance of this, the government
needs to get out the big stick. For our health’s sake.
Emma Clifton is a writer for NEXT and Good Health Choices magazines.
When I eat a chocolate bar, I am eating it because I want chocolate.
I am not eating it because it gives me my daily requirement of
vitamin K, or whatever ludicrous health claim that’s in fashion that
month is printed on the side.
The majority of packaged foods are not good for you. In an
ideal world, we would all eat (sustainable) meat and (organic)
vegetables. But time and money and education about what is good
for us, and what isn’t, are all large factors when it comes to
deciding what we put on our plates.
There is nothing more political than food. There is a context to
every meal. What people eat, and what they don’t eat, is a direct
reflection of what is available to them. A new nutritional label on a
can is not going to change the circumstances of the people buying
it. If you’re buying packaged food because it is the only option
available to you, for whatever reason, a star rating system is not
going to make a difference.
What will make a difference? Two actions. The first is education
about fresh food, and how to cook it. That’s what we’re hungry for
at the moment and why the latest food trends are finally starting to
Paleo, for instance, is not the hipster nonsense it
appears to be – it’s simply a fancy term for the same meat and three
vege our grandparents ate (just hold the potatoes). But as people
get busier, and everything gets more expensive, it’s easy to forget
that for a lot of people, paying for food is a major struggle.
Which brings me to the second action: make fresh fruit and
vegetables cheaper. I don’t care
how many health stars a can of baked
beans has – or, more likely, how many
health stars the company making the
baked beans has purchased – it will
never be as good for you as actual
beans. But until they get cheaper to
buy, the majority of shoppers can’t
afford to care.