Six reasons why food labelling is important

You have made your resolution to be healthy. You go to the store to choose between two products, looking for the better option. But then what? How do you pick? You read the label.

They are something we take as a given, but they are enormously important to our health and well-being. Food labels guarantee that the food is what we think it is and that products are as nutritious as we think they are. Labels teach us about ingredients and nutrients.

With more and more international trade, it is harder and harder for us to know who our food producers are and exactly where the food comes from. Trustworthy labels help fill this gap. FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working together through the Codex Alimentarius Commission to set the global standards for food labelling. Countries must abide by these standards when labelling food, especially those that will be sold on the global market.

Here are six reasons why food labelling is important:

1. Keep healthy – Labels help you to understand the composition of your food: its vitamins, minerals, calories, fats, etc. This information is fundamental in ensuring that you are eating the kinds of food that are good for you. With labels, you can monitor your intake of micronutrients to avoid deficiencies, especially common ones like iron and Vitamin D. You can watch your weight by monitoring calories and saturated fats; you can limit your intake of sugar and salt and make sure that you are eating a balanced diet. All of these actions can help prevent illnesses, like diabetes and certain types of heart disease.

2. Keep you safe – Every year, more than 600 million people get sick and 420 000 die as a result of eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins and chemicals. Labels provide warnings and important information about the ways to use a product (for example, storage and cooking instructions), which are necessary for keeping food safe.

3. Stops you from buying counterfeit products – Preventing fraud is one of the main aims of food labelling. Without internationally guaranteed labels, food sellers could deliberately mislead consumers through false representation on packaging. When you buy chocolate, you want to make sure it is actually chocolate or when it is fish, that it is actually the fish it claims.

4. Detect ingredients that could cause you harmful reactions – Reactions to food affect 10-25 percent of the population in developed countries. The most common allergenic foods include peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, wheat and tree nuts. If you did not know the ingredients in a product, you could mistakenly eat something that would cause an allergy attack, some of which are very severe. Food labels let you know what to avoid.

5. Stop you from wasting food – Food labels (when read correctly!) can stop you from throwing out good food. Date marking on food labels lets you know for how long a product is safe to eat. This is important to avoid getting sick from expired food. However, it is also true that confusing “best before” and “use by” dates can lead to more food waste. In the EU, approximately 10 percent of food that is wasted is linked to date marking. Educating consumers and supply chain stakeholders can help to prevent this food waste and to keep date marking true to its purpose of keeping food safe to eat.

6. Support your local food producers – Certain labels that indicate the food’s origin, for example Colombian Coffee (Colombia), Manchego cheese (Spain), Darjeeling tea (India) or Kona Coffee (USA), can attract a customer’s attention and bring more value to the product and thus to the producer. Consumers tend to identity local and typical food products to a specific place and attribute characteristics – such as taste and quality – to geographic locations. In a study conducted by EBRD and FAO, nine products with geographic indication labels increased the price of the final product by 20 to 50 percent. Today, consumers are increasingly linking quality to geographical origins and traditions.

Food labels are easy to ignore as you reach out for your favorite product or snack. They are just one of the many seemingly boring pieces of writing vying for your attention. Yet, information is power and this power can help you take control of your own health. You might not like being called a “health nut” or a “junk food addict”, but you definitely want your tomatoes to be called tomatoes and peanuts to be called peanuts! We strive for a world where there is food for all, taking for granted that it is safe food. Yet, without this essential foundation, we cannot build a #ZeroHunger world.

‘Made in Australia’ label ranked #14 globally


A study by statistics firm Statista researched 43,000 consumers from 49 different countries to determine the world’s most respected ‘Made in’ labels. According to the study, Australia ranks 14th.

Germany ranked first, receiving 100 index points, closely followed by Switzerland with 98 index points.

Other nations in the top five include the EU as a whole, the UK and Sweden.

Australia’s 14th place ranking puts the nation just above New Zealand (ranked 15th), and below the Netherlands (ranked 13th).

At the end of the spectrum were China on 28 index points and Iran on 27 index points. Statista noted the irony of the fact that Germany scored the top rank, considering that the

‘Made in’ label was introduced by Britain at the end of the 19thcentury to protect its economy from “cheap, low quality and sometimes counterfeit” imports from Germany.

New food labels should go further than country of origin

Australia’s new country of origin food labelling laws come into effect on July 1, 2016. The new labels will indicate if food is grown or made in Australia and the proportion of Australian ingredients.

The government has justified the new laws on the basis of the consumer’s right to know where their food is grown and processed. The immediate event that led to the current laws was public concern over the safety of imported frozen berries. The new labels will make it clearer where food is produced, grown, made and packed.

Why stop at country of origin?

Our food choices have far greater consequences than simply where our food is grown and processed. Our everyday food choices have a significant influence on our health and environmental footprint, as well as on ethical issues associated with how food is produced.

So why stop at country of origin? Consumers also have a right to information on the environmental impacts and ethical consequences of their food choices.

The Australian experience suggests while food labels may be necessary, they are not sufficient to ensure healthy eating. Despite existing dietary guidelines, food labels and healthy eating campaigns, Australia has a high and growing percentage of obese and overweight people.

We consume far too few serves of whole fruit and vegetables, and far too many discretionary foods (“treats” that aren’t nutritious). Already there are a plethora of food labels making health claims, but as the Heart Foundation Tick controversy (where fast food outlets were able to use the Heart Foundation Tick) made clear, there remains the need for government oversight and auditing of claims.

The heart foundation tick was retired after some questionable foods were given approval.
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Globally, there is growing interest in the concept of sustainable diets, which combine healthy diets with reduced environmental impacts. Small shifts in our diet can accumulate large benefits for public health and for the health of the planet.

Although still at an early stage, there is emerging consensus on what constitutes a sustainable diet including increasing vegetable and pulse consumption, reducing consumption of highly processed food, moderating meat consumption – particularly processed meat – and minimising food waste.

The question of whether or not dietary guidelines should consider environmental criteria remains contentious. For example, not all members of society would necessarily benefit from a reduction in red meat consumption, but for those consuming quantities of red meat above the Australian Dietary Guidelines, a reduction would have both health and greenhouse gas emissions reduction benefits.

A less contentious intervention would be to target a reduction in consumption of discretionary foods. These contribute to excessive energy intake and also contribute to dietary greenhouse gas emissions while offering little nutritional value. Any moderation of their consumption from the current 36% of energy intake for the average Australian, would result in public health and environmental benefits.

The European Commission is already well down the path of implementing a voluntary environmental labelling system known as the Product Environmental Footprint. Several of the pilot studies have involved food and grocery products.

What makes a good food label?

Food labels are most effective in “nudging” behaviour at the point of purchase. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to comprehend a complicated message, so the label needs to be clear, quickly recognisable and unambiguous.

The new country of origin food labels score well on this criteria.

Food labels need to be easily understood at a quick glance.

Another effective scheme is the Red Tractor food label used in the UK that provides consumers with assurance that specific guidelines for animal welfare, food safety, food sustainability and traceability have been observed during production and processing.

Consumers need to have confidence in the label, trust in the authority behind it, and belief that it represents their best interests.

The arguments for greater scope in food labelling include:

  • the consumer has a right to know the environmental and ethical consequences of their food choices
  • environmental labelling could support more sustainable food consumption and production, making a significant contribution to mitigation of climate change. This can be seen as an extension of water and energy efficiency labelling schemes, which are mandatory for many home appliances
  • a nationally coordinated food labelling scheme could protect consumers from spurious or misleading claims if surveilled by a legislated authority such as the ACCC
  • Australian food exports would be appropriate for international markets.

The arguments against greater scope in food labelling include:

  • greater compliance costs and complexity for industry, especially smaller businesses, and greater administration costs for taxpayers
  • environmental imperatives must not lead to negative health outcomes for people.

Where to next for food labelling?

Perhaps it is inevitable there will be an increase in food labelling in Australia. As labelled products from other countries enter Australia, local consumers will begin to question why we don’t have similar schemes.

Our food exporting sector will also be increasingly exposed to expectations from supply chain partners and retailers in destination countries.

The Conversation

Bill Bellotti, Professor and Director Food Systems Program, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland and Brad Ridoutt, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO Agriculture, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.