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The Global Burden of Disease Study recently reported that poor-quality diets are now the leading cause of disease worldwide (The Lancet, 2020). Consumer education through product labelling can guide the consumer decision-making process and assist in alleviating the burden of disease due to overconsumption of diets high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
Product labelling can thus guide consumers towards making healthier food choices. This can also assist producers in promoting their products based on the nutritional benefits they offer.
It’s all in the label
Point-of-sale communication is stated as one of the most effective instruments to communicate product information to consumers. Labels provide information about the beneficial properties of food, and act as a persuasive interface to promote a sale. Simply put, a label is classified as any printed material on the packaging, or that is attached to a container providing information to the consumer (Prinsloo et al., 2012).
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies food labelling as “any written, printed or graphic matter that is present on the label, accompanies the food, or is displayed near the food, including that for the purpose of promoting its sale or disposal” (Hawkes, 2004).
In South Africa, regulations relating to labelling and advertising of foodstuffs is stipulated in R146 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972) and defines a label as “any tag, brand, mark, pictorial, graphic or other descriptive matter, which is written, printed, stencilled, marked, embossed, impressed upon, or permanently attached to a container of a foodstuff, and includes labelling for the purpose of promoting its sale or disposal” (DOH, 2012).
Labelling is either printed on the packaging itself or attached to the product container. Labelling can also play the role of information provider, or in some cases act as an integral part of more elaborate packaging and marketing campaigns(Prinsloo et al., 2012).
Conveying the right information
Consumers gather information about the food they purchase from a wide variety of sources. Family knowledge, education, the media and advertising all convey messages about different food characteristics; information which can also be found on the food product label (Koen et al., 2016).
The nutrient panel of food packaging provides instant information to potential buyers. Nutrient information, especially in South Africa, is mostly found in tabular format on the back on the packaging, but in some cases may also be present in some form on the front of packaging, using symbols and interpretive images such as traffic light nutrient classifications. These interpretive methods are used in an attempt to improve consumer understanding and ease the decision-making process (Mhurchu et al., 2018).
These labels may be either interpretive in nature, i.e. where colours or symbols are used to improve consumer understanding of the label information, or non-interpretive where quantitative nutrient data is provided without any interpretation; they all serve as a communication tool for improved product usage (Mhurchu et al., 2018). There are also various barriers to implementing labels such as literacy, legibility, language, presence of the label on packaging and different socio-economic situations (Todd et al., 2021).
Consumers value and evaluate labelling for different products using different criteria. Labelling on a repeat everyday purchase requires less cognitive input than costlier or speciality purchases. Meat is one of the more expensive products in the food basket with its associated media publicity which provides contradictory information to consumers. Therefore, consumers might be more inclined to rely on packaging details to reduce uncertainty and to increase product credibility to make informed point-of-sale purchasing decisions (Prinsloo et al., 2012).
Table 1: Pros and cons of different front of pack labelling programmes.
|Guidelines daily amounts (GDA)/reference intake||Approved by the Institute of Medicine. Simple implementation. Widely implemented in South Africa.||Not easy to understand by consumers. Focus only on nutrients to limit.|
|Multiple traffic lights||Noticeable logo (eye-catching colours). Simple implementation.||Not easy to understand by consumers. Focus only on nutrients to limit.|
|Children warning label||Simple implementation. Easy to understand by consumers.||Degrading to food, many labels seem threating to consumers. Focus only on nutrients to limit.|
|Positive logos||Easy to understand by consumers.|
|Health star rating||Based on a score balancing nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage. Easy to understand by consumers.||Nutrient profile score calculation more complicated than simple threshold.|
|Nutri score||Noticeable logo (eye-catching colours). Based on score balancing nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage. Easy to understand by consumers.||Nutrient profile score calculation more complicated that simple threshold.|
Health benefits of food
Declarations such as health claims, which are statements connecting a food, food component or a nutrient to a state of desired health, provide information to consumers about the nutritional and health advantages of the particular food. Such claims are used as valued marketing techniques by food companies to promote purchase and consumption.
The South African legislative environment has changed dramatically over the past decade with regard to labelling compliance. In 2012, new Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs for Compliance Purposes (Guideline 5, R146 of 1 March 2010) were promulgated by the Department of Health. These regulations provide strict guidelines and cut-off values on which health benefit claims can be made on food.
In 2014, a draft update on these regulations was released for comment which specifically mentions protein quality claims of foodstuffs. These regulations are implemented in an attempt to decrease the confusing and untrue messages communicated by manufactures, for example indicating that a product is 95% fat-free while a 5% fat content is not actually regarded as a low-fat/fat-free product (Van der Merwe and Venter, 2010). Therefore, the updated regulations state minimum requirements for label claims.
As a natural source of protein, amino acids and an array of essential fatty acids, red meat and red meat products have the potential to be eligible for various claims as stated in the regulations. For example, red meat and red meat products contain large quantities of high biological value protein, proven to assist in maintaining lean body mass.
Reasons why red meat may help maintain lean mass and reduce excess weight include the increased satiating properties of protein which may explain decreased food intake (Benelam, 2009), as well as the effect that increased protein intake has on thermogenesis, body composition and decreased energy efficiency (Wyness et al., 2011).
Front of pack labelling programmes
Labelling serves various purposes and provides consumers with essential product information to facilitate and enhance the purchasing and usage of a product. Various front of pack label programmes are implemented globally, with pros and cons associated with each one (Table 1).
In a nutshell
Food labelling, and more specifically product claims, assist consumers in making informed and responsible food purchasing decisions. Nutritional claims placed on a product not only provides consumers with information on the product, but also provides producers with an opportunity to market their product with the use of science-based evidence.
Labelling is a popular regulatory tool that, if implemented correctly, can have an influence on dietary patterns, food choices and consumer purchasing decisions. Labelling regulations are there to guide and assist producers to promote their product to consumers and should be embraced. – Dr Carmen Muller, Dr Beulah Pretorius and Prof Hettie Schönfeldt, Stockfarm
For more information or a list of references, contact
Dr Carmen Muller on 012 361 2333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.