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The truth behind the label



If you’ve ever found yourself standing in a supermarket aisle overwhelmed with the wall of food packets and products that face you, know that you’re not the only one. It’s increasingly hard to decipher what a food label is telling you...


Is it a genuine nutritional information label, or just an obscure health claim or even a product pitch?!

The reality is, once you’ve found the label with the information you’re looking for it’s not as simple as just acknowledging the calorie content. Nutritional labels include specific allergen information, origin and producer details as well as the front of packet traffic light system.


When you pick up an item, you are presented with an abundance of information. Unravelling what it truly means shouldn’t be an insurmountable task, even in the face of additional stickers, slogans and catch phrases that might attempt to convince you otherwise.

As consumers we are trusted with the responsibility to make frequent nutritional choices. Some of those bring joy as part of a celebration, others bring routine and efficiency, but some bring pure confusion and frustration at not knowing what is deemed the “right” choice. Whilst we believe there is no such thing as the wrong or right food, we do strongly believe it’s right that we should all have the ability to make informed choices when it comes to our own nutrition.

Therefore, we want to show you what to look out for and how to better understand what the nutritional information is really telling you, so that you can decide what the label is really telling you.

Unravelling the regulations


Whilst regulations might not be the forward thinking and engaging nutrition topic you were hoping to read about, it’s increasingly important to know why they play such a vital role – and it might just save someone’s life!


Regulations play a significant part in ensuring consistent food safety and quality. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for all standards and regulations, including the legal requirements for all food and drink in the UK.

The key message from the FSA: “All food is subject to general food labelling requirements and any labelling provided must be accurate and not misleading.” [1]

By law the following information must appear on food labels and packaging:



All 10 of the above points MUST be listed on a food label, to abide by mandatory information regulations. The details are required to be easy to see, be clearly legible, difficult to remove, not obscured and should not need the product to be opened to access the information [1].




Arguably one of the most important pieces of information the label must contain is information regarding allergens. In 2021 Natasha’s Law came into effect, requiring all pre-packed foods for direct sale, to provide a comprehensive list of ingredients and allergen label [2]. Natasha’s Law aims to prevent the repetition of the tragic anaphylaxis incident that led to Natasha’s death in 2016.




In addition to the mandatory information listed above, further voluntary information such as the widely recognised traffic light system in the UK can be added to the front of a packet (FoP).

The purpose of this colour-coded system is to aid the consumer in making a healthier choice by highlighting the core nutritional value of a food in a short, convenient and accessible manner (based on an average 2000kcal daily reference intake) [3].

Using this system, consumers can make more informed choices and potentially opt for healthier products.




To better understand the use of the traffic light system in the hands of a consumer, the image below highlights the immediate nutritional differences between two similar products.


Option A, a Tuna & Sweetcorn sandwich on malted bread has 2 green and 2 orange classifications. Whilst option B, a Bacon Butty on white bread, has 2 orange and 2 red classifications, signaling higher levels of salt and saturated fats. This straightforward labeling system helps consumers comprehend vital information at a glance about the products they're considering.



Another useful label is the bright yellow label on option A, drawing further attention to the nutrient quality in terms of protein and saturated fat quantity. For a product to claim it has a high protein content, 20% of the energy value must come from protein [4].



What determines if the named nutrients are worth a green, orange or red label? The UK government created defined categories for each nutrient, thus regulating the given traffic light colour [5]. This system provides consistency for those brands which do decide to include the voluntary FoP labelling. Many companies opt to include this as it provides the consumer with greater knowledge, aiding them to potentially purchase the product.






The overarching aim of the traffic light system is to help the consumer make a healthier choice, by making the key nutritional information immediately visible.



Beyond the label…

While the traffic light system provides essential guidance, it's important to acknowledge that the nutritional content alone does not tell the whole story.


For example, the system does not address the various processing methods a food item undergoes before reaching the consumer, which has an impact on the available nutrients in a food.

There is a great deal of discussion around processed and ultra-processed foods in the press currently (one that you can read more about in a previous blog post), but what you’re unlikely to see on the shelves is a food item labelled as ultra-processed.


Most foods commonly found in our kitchen cupboards are likely to have been through some form of processing, such as tinned goods, packaged items and frozen produce. However, varying levels of preservation, additives, and other modifications to the food lead to a shift in the original food matrix.


Take sweetcorn for example. It is easily grown in the UK and incredibly versatile, commonly used for both human and animal consumption [6]. When you think of sweetcorn, you might picture “corn on the cob”, or perhaps the all-time favourite tuna and sweetcorn sandwich. However, there are countless other forms it can take in various food products.



Changing the original form of the food is what makes it interesting and keeps our dinner plates exciting, avoids the monotony of eating the same food over and over. But this may have an impact on your health when the food matrix is dramatically changed.


The extensive processes can result in added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, while other beneficial nutrients, originally present, get lost through the heating, extrusion, and numerous other processes [7].

Processing may also have an impact on the available energy you get from a food, such as a corn kernel. When you take a bite into a sweetcorn cob, you are consuming the kernels in one of its simplest and whole forms. Meaning your body will need to use energy to metabolise the corn, breaking it down to access the available energy, vitamins and minerals. And some of the kernel might not even be fully broken down by the end of the digestion process.


Now compare this to your corn tortilla crisps. Due to various processes the original inner structure of the food has been broken down, meaning your body will have to use less energy to reach the available energy. But remember, processing isn’t all bad, it gives our food variation, a longer shelf life, as well as convenience.

+ An extra bite: How are calories measured in the first place?

Calorie measurement technology known as bomb calorimetry, was invented in the 1870’s, whereby food is burnt in a controlled oxygen rich environment and the increase in temperature caused by the reaction is measured, resulting in a caloric value [8]. However, whilst our bodies complete incredible reactions and processes 24/7, they are by no means able to burn food in the same regard as a bomb calorimeter. Therefore, it is important to understand the number of calories listed on a packet will not necessarily be 100% gained.


Again, does it really matter?


What matters is that you can enjoy your favourite triangle corn crisp every now and then, just bear in mind that it doesn’t count towards one of your 5-a-day, just because it initially existed as a corn kernel - the same goes for a packet of apple puffs and potato waffles. The key takeaway is to understand when some food items undergo extensive processing, resulting in a product that bears little resemblance to its original form, this may affect their actual nutritional value – some nutrients and goodness may have been lost along the way.


Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find food items labelled with the number of processes it has been through prior to reaching our supermarket shelves, due to the fact you’re buying a food item rather than a piece of scientific literature! (Although this might change!)



In conclusion, nutrition labels serve as essential tools for consumers to understand the nutritional content of prepackaged foods. While regulations ensure accuracy and safety, voluntary information like the traffic light system aid in making healthier choices.

However, it's crucial to consider the impact of food processing on nutrient availability and to be aware that listed calories might not translate directly to actual energy gain. Being informed about the nutritional information and processing methods empowers consumers to make healthier and more conscious food choices.


What are your thoughts on food labels? Do they keep us informed, or are they lost amongst the clever branding?

Next, we discuss more about what advertising and clever marketing is really selling you…COMING SOON!



References

[1] Food Standards Agency (2022) Packaging and Labelling. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/packaging-and-labelling (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[2] Natasha’s Allergy Research Foundation (2023) Natasha’s Story. Available at: https://www.narf.org.uk/natashas-allergies (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[3] British Nutrition Foundation (2022) Looking at Labels. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/putting-it-into-practice/food-labelling/looking-at-labels/ (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[4] European Commission (2023) Food Safety, Nutrition claims. Available at: https://food.ec.europa.eu/safety/labelling-and-nutrition/nutrition-and-health-claims/nutrition-claims_en (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[5] Department of Health (2016) Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/fop-guidance_0.pdf (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[6] Gwirtz, J. & Garcia-Casal, M. (2014) Processing maize flour and corn meal food products, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1312 (1), pp 66-75. Doi: 10.1111/nyas.12299

[7] The Washington Post (2023) Melted, pounded, extruded: Why many ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/06/27/ultra-processed-foods-predigested-health-risks/ (Accessed: 10/08/23)

[8] Wierdsma, N. et al. (2013) Bomb calorimetry, the gold standard for assessment of intestinal absorption capacity: normative values in healthy ambulant adults, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 27 (2), pp. 57-64. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12113



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