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Misleading labels and insidious ingredients

- Beth Amato

Only limited legislation protects us against incomprehensible, misleading and detrimental food labels.

On the back of a cereal box, sugar as an ingredient is hidden in plain sight. Indeed, the cereals many South Africans eat for breakfast and consider “healthy”, on closer inspection, have a significant amount of sugar masquerading as sucrose, barley malt, and high fructose corn syrup. 

Another of the ingredients – Penta sodium triphosphate – seems to be a thinning agent, but a Google search yields a variety of definitions. The daily allowances for fat, sugar, proteins and carbohydrates appear on the label as do recommended serving sizes, but with grams and percentages involved, it’s hard for even the most literate, health conscious calorie-counter to determine the ‘right’ amount to eat. 

What lurks in the label? 

Being unable to decipher what we’re eating is one of the reasons why PRICELESS SA, a research-to-policy unit in the Wits School of Public Health conducted research into food labelling. PRICELESS SA, the Priority Cost Effective Lessons for System Strengthening South Africa, investigates smart decisions about health investments in the country. 

PRICELESS SA’s pioneering paper, Nutrition labelling: a review of research on consumer and industry response in the global South (2015) advocates healthier eating – particularly in developing countries where obesity is increasing – and reveals a number of important food-buying behaviours. 

  • First, consumers in the global South prioritise other information on the food label before nutrition information, such as expiration date, manufacturer information and storage information.
  • Second, while shoppers want to see nutrition labelling, the comprehensibility of the information is quite poor.
  • Third, back of package (BOP) is where all the vague information is found and consumers would prefer government-endorsed information that is clear, visible, standardised and includes symbols or pictures. These labelling standards are in line with the front of package (FOP) labelling system. 

Labels lack lucidity and legislation 

Professor Karen Hofman, Director of PRICELESS SA and senior author of Nutrition labelling, says that easy-to-understand labelling is a transparency and accountability issue.

“The increase of obesity, for example, is not only because we don’t exercise enough, but because ‘Big Food’ [multinational food companies] obscure nutritional information on processed food and sugary drinks, keeping consumers in the dark about what they’re really eating,” she says. 

Processed foods and sugary drinks are relatively cheap and easy to access, hence their ubiquity across South Africa and increasingly the continent. 

Nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like cancer, diabetes and hypertension, are on the rise in South Africa. Research shows that NCDs are now the top causes of death, with 700 people dying each day. The World Health Organization projects that by 2030, NCDs will be the biggest cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. 

A Food Code with teeth? 

Hofman notes that, despite the horrifying statistics, 87% of countries in Africa do not have mandatory food labelling. The Food Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization established the Codex Alimentarius [“Food Code”] Commission to develop standards for nutrition guidelines on food products. 

Some developing countries have revised their nutrition regulations in response to this and as a means to “not only meet food safety requirements but also as a government best practice for tackling nutrition-related NCDs,” according to the Nutrition labelling paper. 

The tax on sugary drinks is one strategy that the South African government adopted to address the NCD epidemic. Most importantly, it is expected that the country will adopt some form of FOP labelling regulations. Chile has done so and Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand have followed suit.

Misleading food labels. © Curiosity | 

Truth-telling and transparent Front of Package labels 

Front of package label information helps the consumer to assess a product’s overall nutrition information. Label formats include the ‘traffic light system’ (red, yellow and green), guideline daily amounts, or nationally endorsed health symbols, such as the Choices logo system and the ‘seal of approval’. 

For example, if an average size fizzy drink or fruit juice had transparent FOP label information, it would receive a ‘red light’ label, owing to the fact that these products each contain between eight and 12 teaspoons of sugar per serving. 

“Shoppers spend only a few seconds looking at a product. Indeed, the research shows that consumers don’t use the nutrition information on the back of the pack because they don’t have the time. This is in addition to having difficulty locating and understanding the complex information on the back. This is why clearer FOP labelling is needed,” says Hofman. 

But some FOP labelling techniques are better than others. Hofman notes that the traffic light system and the guideline daily amounts have not worked as well as anticipated. She says the Chilean labelling system has yielded better results. Food in Chile has clear warnings. On the front of the item, shoppers are told whether something is high in sugar, saturated fat and salt. The wording is in black and white in a ‘stop sign’ shape. 

“There are three ways to curb nutrition-related NCDs in South Africa: tax on unhealthy foods, halting of marketing of unhealthy foods and transparency about what people are eating,” says Hofman. 

Regrettably, FOP labelling is only voluntary in the global North and is a long way from implementation in South Africa. Big Food is sure to push back. But the PRICELESS SA team is putting its weight behind revealing what’s in our food. 

Further reading:   

  • Beth Amato is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communicationsand the Research Office.
  • Read more in the sixth issue, themed: #HungerGames where our researchers and academics unpack the latest research on food security, food science, food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image.