Food Nutrition Labels, Who Cares?
At the end of 2017 at The Food Retail Show I happened upon Jenny Plumb a food scientist who works for The Quadram Institute and Nutritional Information Solutions. She was a mine of information about the composition of foods and food nutrition labels. Our meeting was very timely as this is a subject which is now very much in the spotlight.
Mintel’s Food and Drink Trends 2018 (see Food and Drink Trends 2018) predicts that full disclosure will be the first of the five most important trends in the industry for the forthcoming year, explaining that
“widespread distrust has increased the need for food and drink manufacturers to be forthcoming about their ingredients, production processes, and supply chains.”
And the second trend identified by the Mintel report concerns health. “As more consumers find modern life to be hectic and stressful, flexible and balanced diets will become integral elements of self-care routines,” write the analysts.
So, far from being a dry subject, food labelling, particularly labelling aimed at enabling consumers to make healthier choices, is now a hot topic, but it’s a complex one. Jenny was able to clarify many of the principal issues, and below I give a summary of our discussions.
SD: Could you give us a broad outline of the regulations?
JP: In December 2016, the European Union introduced legislation ruling that most prepacked foods must list certain information on their packaging (FIC regulation No 1169/2011 on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers). I say most, because there are exemptions, for example if you produce diddy products and can’t fit the numbers on the packaging or if you just sell your products locally. For the full regulations, the link is available at the end of this article, useful in case you need some light reading to send you to sleep at night! But one of the main motivations behind these regulations is to help and inspire more people to use the information on the pack more of the time, thus enabling them to make healthier food choices.
SD: So what has to be on the label?
JP: Energy (kcal and kJ), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, all in a defined order per 100g/100ml of product. The manufacturer can also choose to add the data on other nutrients and also the content per portion size (a couple of interesting facts – did you know that a certain chocolate producer says portion size is five chunks?! Who stops at five? And a fruit juice manufacturer produces a small bottle of juice for grab and go and says the portion size is half a bottle).
Traffic light labels are not mandatory, which is why you may see them or you may not, they can be horizontal or vertical or even black and white. If you saw it in black and white I wonder if you would consider the manufacturer is hiding something?
SD: Where does the information on the label come from?
JP: Many people wonder how the nutrition labels are produced. There are two methods, one is lab analysis, accurate, yet expensive and when a producer reformulates a product another trip to the lab is required.
The second is cheaper and more flexible, where the numbers are produced by calculation, if you know the nutrient composition of each ingredient and how much weight you lose (or gain) in processing, then it’s totally ok to calculate. The calculations can be from values of the product specs of the ingredients used or from generally established and accepted data. This established and accepted data is what we at The Quadram Institute work on, we which compile McCance and Widdowson’s Composition of Foods, which covers some 3000 of the most commonly eaten foods in the UK. This data underpins research into the links between diet and health and is helping to inform policy to promote a healthy lifestyle.
SD: It must be very difficult to establish the average composition of UK foods – how on earth do you do that?
JP: In fact it’s very simple. We have to make many shopping trips to purchase copious amounts of foods to combine into a single sample for laboratory analysis. For example, to know what the average composition of an egg is the scientists sampled over 2000 eggs. For tomatoes they had to shop at supermarkets with different market share; sample in different seasons; collect both imported and UK grown; and buy tomatoes in different packaging all to end up with the most typical tomato nutrition profile possible.
Will all tomatoes (or, indeed, any food) have exactly the same nutritional composition? Nope, the data produced by analysis is just a snap shot, there will be natural variations due to different varieties, season grown, feeding regime, country of origin and growing conditions. And because of this variation, the food label data you read are allowed some tolerances.
It is recognised that it’s not always possible for foods to contain the exact amount of nutrients labelled, owing to the natural variations and variations arising from production, length of storage and analytical variation. But foods should not deviate substantially from labelled amounts, as the consumer could otherwise be misled. As a result, the European Commission has guidance on the tolerances for nutrient values. Here is the table with the main information.
What may be interesting for the reader is that if a food contains 10-40g fat per 100g, then the tolerance allowed is 20%.
Give that a bit of thought next time you are choosing a packet of crisps due to their fat content, with tolerances this great, the one that appears to be lower fat could actually be higher. Food for thought.
SD: What about health and nutrition claims, Jenny?
JP: You’ve got to be really careful here. If you are a food producer or retailer, not only must you list all the nutritional information for the nutrient for which you are making the claim, but any health claims must be accurate, truthful, substantiated and not in any way misleading, not only on the product but also on your website and publicity information. There are food lawyers who charge a fair bit of money to help with your claim. The established health and nutrition claims that have been registered with EFSA the European food standards agency are published here.
For further information on food labelling, go to these sites:
Jenny’s place of work, Food Databanks at the Quadram Institute, Norwich. If you want further information on the science behind the labels or want access to the UK Food composition data set (it’s free) visit the Quadram site.
Nutritional Information Solutions: If you need help producing your food nutrition labels, either by using software to do it yourself or using experts to do it for you visit Nutritional Information Solutions.
There is a free Food Standards Agency online training module that is actually really interesting with a lot of detail based around some of the issues Jenny discussed with me, if you have some time free and want to know more about not only nutrition labels, but also allergens and health claims then visit their training pages.
The full FIC regulations are available here: