Sue Kedgley: New food standard not whole package

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Forcing manufacturers to prove health claims a start but only traffic light system gives desired info at a glance.

Health claims on labels are often just marketing tools aimed at convincing health-conscious consumers to buy their product.  Photo / APN
Health claims on labels are often just marketing tools aimed at convincing health-conscious consumers to buy their product. Photo / APN

If you wander around a supermarket, you'll find all sorts of fanciful health claims on food - claims that consuming certain brands of margarine will lower your cholesterol or that various foods will reduce your risks of developing heart disease or osteoporosis.

This is odd because only one health claim is legally permitted on food labels at the moment - namely a claim that folate lowers the risk of neural tube defects in unborn babies.

Manufacturers have been able to get away with making all sorts of outrageous and misleading health and nutrition claims on food because the whole area has been unregulated.

So it's good news that the Australian and New Zealand governments have finally agreed to regulate these claims - something that consumer groups have been pushing for for years.

But the new standard has shortcomings and won't help consumers figure out whether food is healthy or not.

Health claims are often presented as if they provide vital information about the health qualities of food but in reality they are simply marketing tools that manufacturers use to help them sell their food. They put them on labels to try to convince health-conscious consumers to buy their product.

Some claims are truthful and extremely useful. Others are little more than marketing hype. When the new standard comes into effect in three years food manufacturers will no longer be able to make false or inaccurate health claims on labels, as they will have to be able to verify any claim they make is true. This will ensure consumers can trust the claims that they make.

Unfortunately, food manufacturers will still be able to make a so-called "nutrition" claim on an otherwise unhealthy food - a practice consumer groups believe is misleading and deceptive.

Manufacturers will be able to market food as being "fat free", for example, even if it's laden with sugar and salt. This will enable manufacturers to distract consumers from a product's high sugar content, for example, by boasting about its fat-free status - a classic marketing ploy.

What the new standard won't do is enable consumers to tell, at a glance, whether food is high in added fat, sugar or salt, so that consumers can avoid purchasing foods that are bad for their health.

This is what consumers have consistently said they want in numerous marketing surveys.

A colour-coded traffic light labelling system would do this, and make it easy for consumers to choose healthy food and avoid unhealthy food.

Research shows that traffic light labels (which would give food a red dot if it's high in fat, salt or sugar and a green dot if it's low in sugar, fat or salt) are simple and easy for consumers to understand.

But the food industry is vehemently opposed to traffic light labels because the last thing they want to see is a red dot on their food.

They know it would put consumers off purchasing their food, and so they have lobbied the Government to reject such a system.

Instead the Government is working on a voluntary "star rating" system, which would allow food manufacturers to put stars on healthy food and avoid putting anything at all on unhealthy food.

In the absence of anything on a food label that allows consumers to see at a glance whether food is high in added sugar, salt or fat, the Government's claim that the new standard will give consumers better information about the health of their food, and empower families to maintain a healthier diet is disingenuous.

The information on a health or nutrition marketing claim will be limited to what food manufacturers want to tell consumers, and nutrition claims will still be able to be made on unhealthy food. But at least, in three years time, consumers will know that a health claim on a food label will be accurate and truthful.

If the Government really wants to encourage families to maintain a healthier diet, it could introduce traffic light labelling, and require food manufacturers to declare whether there are unhealthy trans-fats in their food, which increase the risk of coronary heart disease. It could also require food manufacturers to declare what oils are in food as some oils are healthy and some are extremely unhealthy.

It could also tighten up the legal definitions around words like "natural" and "pure" that are used in all sorts of misleading ways on food labels.

These sorts of simple moves really would give consumers better information about the health of their food and empower them to eat healthier food and maintain a healthier diet.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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