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Improving the labelling of food for health

Student on a laptop

Friday 20 April 2012 11:41am

Shopping at the supermarketNew Otago-led research reveals support for better food labelling

Front-of-pack (FOP) labelling of food in New Zealand has support from industry, policy-makers and NGOs according to new research from the Universities of Otago and Auckland.

The study led by the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington has just been published in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia. Researchers interviewed 17 key stakeholders from the NZ food industry, policy makers and NGOs about improving food labelling.

They also investigated support for carrying out supermarket research into how FOP labelling may assist shoppers make healthier choices.

“Research has already shown that shoppers find the current labelling systems on the back of food products complicated and hard to understand,” says lead researcher Associate Professor Louise Signal.

“This is especially so for low-income, Maori and Pacific people. This suggests labels on the front of packs are needed that simply and clearly indicate the nutritional and health value of food, such as traffic light labels.”

“There’s a growing international consensus that consumers like and understand FOP systems,” she says.

FOP labels use simple images such as red, orange or green traffic lights to indicate the level of fat, sugar and salt in food products.

This qualitative study based on interviews with stakeholders examined a number of areas in relation to improved FOP labelling. The results indicate there is support for FOP nutrition labelling by the food industry, key policy makers and NGOs.

While there is a lack of agreement on the labelling format to use, some non-industry participants suggest this decision should be based on evidence and the impact on public health.

Industry participants were opposed to mandatory rather than voluntary introduction of new labelling. An NGO participant noted, however, that a mandatory system would ‘provide the level playing field the food industry always talk about’.

“Agreement between key stakeholders isn’t going to be easy with the bottom line profit motivation of the food industry contrasting with the public health goals of improved nutrition and health,” says Associate Professor Signal.

“However it’s not impossible to achieve, and this study clearly shows the need for more government leadership in advancing discussions in this critical area. There’s also a need for robust evidence-based research on the health and consumer impacts of FOP labelling, which participants supported.”

The study also says more consumer education is required into healthy choices, especially for those communities who have nutrition-related health problems.

Signal says the introduction of consistent and easily understood FOP nutrition labeling by government has the potential to assist in the effort to promote healthy eating, reduce chronic disease and obesity, and lower health inequalities.

“Poor nutrition is a major determinant of growing health inequalities in New Zealand, and the burden of nutrition-related disease is much greater for Maori, Pacific and low income people.”

“Research indicates approximately 40% of all deaths in New Zealand are due to the combined effects of nutrition-related factors; high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and inadequate fruit and vegetable intake,” says co-author Dr Cliona Ni Mhurchu.

This study has been funded by the Health Research Council, the Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

For further information, contact

Associate Professor Louise Signal
Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel +64 4 918 6477

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