There is irrefutable evidence that diet choices play a central role in the development of a wide range of lifestyle related chronic diseases (Fuenekes et al 2008, pp. 56; Heimbach & Stokes 1982, pp. 800). Based on this premise, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that food manufacturers should significantly reduce the concentrations of sugar, trans fatty acids, saturated fatty acids, and sodium in their products as a way of reducing the burden of these diseases on global healthcare delivery (WHO 2004). Nutritional labelling is one of the most effective ways of presenting the levels of composite nutrients to consumers.
The main purpose of nutritional labelling is to assist consumers in making healthy food choices. By reading nutritional labels, consumers can reduce dietary excesses, reduce their intake of certain nutrients, and reduce the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies. In a recent study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), it was demonstrated that many consumers are confused and find it very hard to use the nutritional labels for dietary decision making due to the lack of clarity of many food labels (FSA 2002; Scott & Worsley 1997; Shannon 1994).
Confusion was fueled by the terminologies and the numerical information used (Byrd-Bredbenner et al 2000). Fuenekes et al (2008) adds that older consumers and consumers with lower education and income levels are more vulnerable to unclear nutritional labels (pp. 57). The FSA Task Force recommended that manufacturers should use clear labels. Due to the level of public confusion, the Task Force voiced commitment to educating and providing consumers with advice on food labelling.
FSA further reiterated that effective nutritional labelling should be relatively easy to find, read, understand, and utilize the information in making sound purchasing decisions. Since food products come in diverse shapes and sizes, no single label format could be applied in all products. Thus, to ensure that all food products conformed to clear labelling recommendations, FSA developed an ideal format and a supplementary second best labelling format. Three schemes of labelling have since been adopted to eliminate the confusion fueled by back- of-pack nutritional labels.
They include Wheel of Health, Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) and Multiple Traffic Light labels. GDA labels show the levels of different nutrients (sugar, salt per serving, calories, fat, and saturates) in percentages and grams. The Multiple Traffic Light and Wheel of Health labels are more or less similar and shows the levels of energy, saturated fatty acids, total fat, sugar, and salt in each serving. United Kingdom FSA has recommended Multiple Traffic Light labels. The five key nutrients are then are given a score of green, amber, or red.
These scores indicates “Go”, “Ok”, and “Think before you eat too much of this…although a little bit will never hurt” (Fuenekes et al 2008, pp. 58). The scores in Multiple Traffic Light labels assist all types of consumers in making an informed purchasing decision based on dietary needs irrespective of their age, sex, education level, or socioeconomic status. By using easily recognizable colors; green, amber, and red to indicate low, medium, and high levels of undesirable nutrients, the Multiple Traffic Light labelling offers a level of clarity not replicated in GDA or Wheel of Health.
However, this labelling scheme has some salient disadvantages. Some consumers may not be able to decipher the implied meanings of different colors. However, this disadvantage can be eliminated if FSA up scales its consumer education and advise efforts. Again, by eliminating information on portion sizes, the Multiple Traffic Light labelling scheme fails to appreciate that even though some foods may contain high levels of desirable nutrients; they can only be consumed in small quantities (Fuenekes et al 2008).
One of the main advantages of GDA is that it provides accurate numerical details of the quantity of every specific nutrient contained in the food product. In addition, to these provisions GDA provides accompanying guidelines useful in determining the nutritive intake per day. Additionally, GDA numerical presentations enable consumers to compare the levels of specific nutrients in different food products or brands and make informed choices based on solid data (Fuenekes et al 2008).
While GDA and Wheel of Health state the levels of nutrients, they do not interpret the meaning of these levels to the consumer. This implies that consumers with low levels of education may not be able to determine the nutritional benefits of food products (Fuenekes et al 2008). This creates confusion and fosters arbitrary and uninformed purchasing decisions. This can lead to detrimental health outcomes. The current increased interest in nutritional labelling can be attributed to the increase in consumer interest in nutritional values of the foods they consume.
Labelling directly influences consumer purchase decisions (Astrup 2001). For consumers who read nutritional labels, the contents of such labels aid in evaluating the usefulness of the food product. It is important to note that evaluating the nutritional label enables the consumer to categorize a food product as either good or bad. This is because a large number of consumers who evaluate nutrition labels are looking for specific nutrients which they wish to avoid.
However, given the limited time that families or individuals spend in shopping, the concept of labelling needs to be considered and improved not only as a company’s marketing strategy but also to improve the health of consumers (Shine et al 1997). Cowburn & Stockley (2005) reiterates that improving nutrition labelling is an important facilitator of making the point of purchase environment to be more conducive to shoppers who are intent on making healthy nutritional choices. The net result of effective labelling is improved public health outcomes. Bibliography
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