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Debate: Do we need food labelling?

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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 make sense.

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.