Food labelling: the public votes for…


The ‘fast food’ of the 1950s turned into ‘junk food’ by the 1980s. Who hasn’t heard ‘Eat your five-a-day’ when it comes to recommendations for consuming fruit and vegetables? My point? Everyone has a clear idea at the extremes of what constitutes the food we should be avoiding, as well as the food we should be eating, making it easy for us to make informed choices. But what about the food in between? How confident are we about what we are buying in our weekly grocery shopping? Can we make sense of, or do we feel confident about, the endless stream of food warnings that come at us constantly via the media? Might the public have a view on a simpler way of identifying what they might want to avoid, or eat as an occasional treat, when it comes to food labelling/packaging?

All these questions came into my mind in March of this year following the mounting scientific evidence that heavily processed food can make us sick. Research released in 2018 had been a particularly powerful incentive to explore these issues, as well as the simple and effective steps by the Chilean government in their fight against childhood obesity. So, I decided to instigate our first survey of the UK public.

No Targets Just Routine Poll

The poll was conducted over the first two weeks in March 2018, securing 977 overall responses. It was hosted on Survey Monkey and was specifically NOT promoted to either our many thousands of registered app users or to our 20,000+ followers on social media, so that it would be more reflective of the general public. However, I do suspect that the survey will have a certain bias as the people responding will be more likely to have an interest in this subject. This said, the results were fascinating.

The starting point of the poll was to gauge the reaction to an extensive five-year French nutrition study in which researchers found that eating every day ultra-processed foods led to an increase in overall cancer events. Ubiquitous foods like bread, pastry, sodas and sweetened drinks, meat products like chicken nuggets; instant noodles and soups, and frozen ready meals and processed cheese.

Keen to find out whether such warnings were being taken seriously, and whether people felt this helped and empowered them – or simply confused or discouraged them, the results showed that while most of those surveyed felt better equipped to make informed food choices by food studies, it was a fairly close call. Over half (53%) of respondents judged they were empowered to make informed choices by such research, but almost as many (47%) felt that the restrictions on common foods suggested were so unrealistic or confusing they were impossible to achieve.

However, there were some very clear results. 70% of respondents felt it mattered what they ate, and while being aware that subsequent research might ultimately contradict these findings, they didn’t expect this to happen. Equally, over 85% of those surveyed felt they understood what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet, with towards three quarters (70%) suggesting it was possible to prepare meals each day from scratch using fresh ingredients despite hectic modern lives, with only 30% feeling this was unrealistic.

Most importantly, there was a clear-cut opinion on food labelling, with almost 60% of those surveyed wanting the government to add warnings to foods that are known to be harmful and lead to obesity and ill health.

Reasons to be cheerful

As a first-time experiment I was encouraged how generally the results indicated that people are aware of the importance of their food choices and how the problems associated with eating too much processed food is making inroads with the general public. As I suspected, the survey also found that most of us believe we know the foods that are good for us – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein.

Food labelling: work to be done

Almost half of those surveyed – 47% – felt the food restrictions being suggested – relating to ubiquitous foods like bread, pastry, sodas and sweetened drinks, meat products like chicken nuggets; instant noodles and soups, and frozen ready meals and processed cheese – are so unrealistic or confusing they feel impossible to achieve. So little wonder almost 60% agreed that the UK government should add clearer labelling of the sort of food that the study was based upon that are known to be harmful and lead to obesity and ill health.

Food labelling: Chilean inspiration

As reported in the New York Times, “They killed Tony the Tiger. They did away with Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah.” In a country struggling with a childhood obesity epidemic the government ordered the banning of cartoon characters from cereal boxes, forbids the sale of junk food like ice cream, chocolate and potato chips in Chilean schools and bars such products from being advertised during television programs or on websites aimed at kids.

Critical to the initiative is the labelling system – requiring packaged food to display black warning logos in the shape of a stop sign on items high in sugar, salt, calories or saturated fat. Cereal bars, yogurts and juice boxes, products long advertised as “healthy,” “natural” or “fortified with vitamins and minerals,” now carry one or more of the black warning labels.

The brilliance and effectiveness of this approach is of course its simplicity. Simple warnings on labels for adults to easily understand, combined with a greater control of advertising aimed at children, represent exactly the type of potentially effective public health intervention that public health professionals would love – and we know from our survey the general public would welcome – in helping to alert people to what highly processed foods they should stay away from or treat with care.

We all know how tough it can be to swap poor eating habits for better eating routines. Might our survey indicate that making it easier for people to find out what food they should be avoiding would not only help, but be a popular policy and even a vote winner for politicians? What better incentive for a public policy review…

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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