New food labelling standards take aim at the ‘health halo’

We live in fat times and the supposedly duplicitous actions of the companies responsible for producing the food and drinks that play a part in this bodily expansion are often blamed for it. But the Government is attempting to address the issue and has signed off on new standards for health claims on labels that aim to reduce misleading marketing and help consumers make better-informed decisions.

The new standards cover more than 200 pre-approved food health claims and food safety minister Nikki Kaye says claims of health or nutrition like ‘low in fat’ or more specific claims such as ‘diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in people 65 years and over’ will only be allowed on certain foods. There will also be strict enforcement to make sure those claims are backed up by scientific evidence and meet standards set by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

“This is a win for both consumers and food businesses,” says Kaye. “In my view this helps New Zealand food to be first off the shelf at home and abroad .Consumers will be able to maintain a healthier diet with better information about nutrition content and health claims on labelling and advertising. Families who want to eat healthier food will be more empowered by this new labelling regime. They can have confidence as food businesses will need to ensure they can back up their health claims with scientific evidence. That opens the way for companies to invest in innovative new food products with health benefits, for both the New Zealand and export markets. This fits with the Government’s aim of doubling exports by 2025. Food is a major export, accounting for just over 52 percent (NZ$24.3 billion in 2012) of the total value of New Zealand exports.”

The New Zealand and Australian Ministers responsible for food regulation approved the new joint standard regulating nutrition and health claims on food standards in December 2012. The standard will take effect in New Zealand from 9 May 2013 and food companies have three years to comply and companies that do not follow the rules could be fined under legislation now before Parliament.

CAANZ chief executive Paul Head, who also sits on the Food Industry Group, says it’s good news for both manufacturers and consumers and he’s happy the government didn’t go down the track of the traffic light system, which is used in the UK and was lobbied for by Sanitarium. He feels there are too many “fishhooks” involved with that system and unhealthy food can be made to appear healthier than it actually is (Kaye points out that fizzy drinks look healthier than milk under this system because they’re low in fat, saturated fat and sodium)

What you leave out, rather than what you put in, is a key aspect of communications and this is a big part of the reason food companies are often seen as being dodgy. Gareth Morgan’s blog points to a Milo ad that says it boosts calcium absorption by 50 percent, without mentioning the fact it also increases sugar intake by 70 percent. Head didn’t believe this claim was “necessarily misleading” and says it’s “up to consumers to know what they’re putting in their mouths and their family’s mouths”. 

“But it’s up to the advertisers to show that information clearly,” he says, adding that the industry needs to do further work around this. 

As Morgan points out, however, one in two New Zealanders admit they are baffled about how to eat healthily and the half that claim they do know probably don’t. 

Be very clear: producers never champion provision of full and accurate information to customers. That would take away the scope to dupe and exploit – always a way to generate at least short term windfall profits. They want us to know the good things about their products, but not the bad stuff. The downsides of modern manufactured food should be declared with equal fanfare as the supposed nutrient and health benefits. Food labelling today is in a similar mess as the financial sector disclosures from ten years ago. There, voluntary disclosure and standards led to disaster; at which point the government finally started to regulate. Why would companies voluntarily have a simple system that informs customers when they can overload them with information in the knowledge that they will skip over the fine print? That way they can always hide behind the fact that they provided information, safe in the notion that only those people with a nutrition degree will understand it.

Like Morgan, Green Party food safety spokeswoman Mojo Mathers said in a release that the standards were a step in the right direction, but they fell short because they did not identify foods that were high in added sugar, fats and salt.

“Industry resists any scheme that identifies foods that are bad for people’s health, but if we are serious about improving health outcomes, that is what we need.”

Still, according to the Herald, products will be given an overall “nutrition profile score”, which takes into account a range of nutritional factors, not just isolated benefits. The ministry is also considering a voluntary system ranking products by stars, where more stars equals a healthier product.

“Kaye suggested that a toasted muesli brand, while high in fat, would be able to make health claims because it is high in protein, fibre and fruit,” the story said. “On the other hand, potato chip makers were unlikely to be able to make health claims because their products are high in fat and sodium.”

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