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Why it’s so hard to make sense of food labelling

To make informed choices about what we eat, we must get comfortable with reading the information found in small print

Packaged food companies don’t make it desirable even to check the back of the pack
Packaged food companies don’t make it desirable even to check the back of the pack (iStock)

Here’s a new term: de-influencing. In a world where you have to sift through endless influencer promotions, it’s hard to know if we’re presented with the truth about many of the things we buy. De-influencing, according to TechTarget, is where influencers, presumably with no financial gain, tell you what products not to buy. It’s oddly refreshing.

We saw this play out in real time recently when Revant Himatsingka, known as FoodPharma on Instagram, flagged Cadbury’s Bournvita drink saying it was unhealthy for children. However, in a bold, miscalculated move, Cadbury swiftly and aggressively supplied legal notices, forcing him to take down the video. Although they successfully cut one weed (and made him more famous), more dissenting voices have taken his place. And it’s relatively easy to do; all it takes to dispute their claim is to go on the back of the package and look at the nutritional information—but that’s the problem that Himatsingka was trying to showcase. In an interview, Himatsingka said, “I have a bigger problem with health drinks because people give them to their children mostly twice a day. If consumers know that the product is unhealthy and still choose to consume it, it’s their choice.”

Funnily enough, that’s also what Cadbury said in its response to the legal notice provided to Himatsingka, stating that “all the necessary nutritional information is mentioned on the pack for consumers to make informed choices.”

If you feel equal parts reassured by these corroborating statements yet feel completely abandoned when determining whether a product is healthy, you’re not alone. According to an article published in the National Library of Medicine titled Food label reading: Read before you eat, roughly 50% of the world doesn’t read or understand the labels on the back of food packages. Packaged food companies don’t make it desirable even to check the back of the pack, as most of them employ a tactic called creating a “health halo” around their product, the perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to the effect. Food labellers can do this by using imagery of delicious fresh food on a package of dusty, dry shelf-stable products; illusions of health by showcasing healthy, smiling, active people; and the inclusion of health-oriented tag lines such as “heart-healthy” or a “source of Vitamin C.”

Let’s take Snickers and VitaminWater as examples of employing a health halo to see how easy it is to take a “treat” and make it look healthier. Snickers found that other chocolate bars on the market were sold as providing a calming, relaxing effect. Snickers seized this opportunity to be different and reclassify itself not as a comforting “self-care” chocolate bar but as providing “energy on the go.” It doesn’t change that Snickers is still a chocolate bar containing chocolate and caramel; the only thing resembling nutrition are the peanuts smothered in the centre.

VitaminWater, an American brand you associate with liquid vitamins, employs the same tactics. For instance, a bottle of ‘Focus’ VitaminWater had 26g of added sugar but 300% of your daily B5, B6, and B12. This incredible exaggeration of synthetic vitamins sounds overwhelmingly healthy. However, according to the NHS, adults’ sugar allowance is 30g a day. Here you get an overdose of vitamins, which your body may only urinate out, and the equivalent of 6.5 teaspoons of sugar is left to wreak havoc.

Coca-Cola is a company that doesn’t pretend to be overly healthy but still manages to hide its sugar content. In India, can sizes start at 180 ml and range to 330 ml, but the nutrition label on their website cites sugar content per 100 ml and recommends 200 ml as a serving size. 100 ml of Coca-Cola has 10.6g of sugar, meaning a single 180 ml can have 19g of sugar. The truth is disguised.

Big food companies protect their profits by catering to health-conscious consumers’ wants. However, just because you sprinkle some vitamin and mineral enrichment into a product flavoured with high levels of sugar, salt, or fat to make it taste better does not make it a suitable product for consumption. It’s like trying to get your children to eat oatmeal. If they don’t want to eat it, you could load it full of butter, sugar, salt, and chocolate chips and make oatmeal cookies. This line of thinking encourages adults to make ill-informed choices for their children, and you can’t blame them, given the circumstances.

However, once you know better, you must act accordingly. In a world struggling with an obesity and diabetes epidemic, it serves no one to play ignorant and consistently put the responsibility back on the big food company to change their ways while not changing our own. We must influence their bottom line and switch to healthier product alternatives to force change and positively impact our health.

To do this, we must get comfortable with the information found in small print on the back of the box. For instance, Cadbury’s argument that the amount of sugar per serving is less than the total daily recommended amount of sugar for children is correct; a single drink doesn’t put a child over their daily sugar limit. But here is where the consumer choice and knowledge of their food habits will drive whether or not they should have a glass of Bournvita as a “treat.” Treats are food items you should consume irregularly and balanced with your diet. For example, I will turn down a piece of cake at dinner if I know I already had two cookies at lunch. The same goes with Bournvita; perhaps it’s not the ideal inclusion in your children’s diet if you know they already had some sugary fruit juice and flavoured yogurt that day.

And finally, it’s worth noting that you can enrich your child’s diet with the fundamental nutrients they need by being considerate of what you feed them at mealtimes. You don’t need a chocolatey drink sprinkled with vitamins to do that job. Start by including colourful fresh fruit and vegetable in every meal, and you’re on the right track.

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