Saturday, 11 June 2011

What’s this food labelling all about then?

On Monday morning I read in the Guardian that the Government is about to disband the Food Standards Agency (FSA). ’So what?’ you might ask. Well the FSA has been behind the championing of the traffic light system that tells you the dangers associated with how much carbohydrate, salt, sugar, fat and saturated fats are in your food. This made me furious. But the Government’s White paper on health came and went and no mention was made of the FSA. That got me wondering, what’s this food labelling all about then?

The food industry has lobbied hard against the traffic light system (Guardian 12 July, Food Standards Agency to be abolished by health secretary) and I could only imagine it’s because they don’t want to make it as easy as possible for consumers to understand their products. So I asked the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) who represent the food industry and they said, “When consumers make better-informed choices for themselves, through higher levels of food literacy, we believe they are more likely to stick with those good habits, rather than when someone ‘tells’ them to make such choices (by sticking coloured blobs on their foods).”

They went on to say, “FSA colour coding offers an opinion and makes assumptions about consumer’s diets. GDA labelling is based on per portion information whilst traffic light labelling is applied per 100g.” Which is a fair point about the traffic light labelling. What we should be getting in the traffic light system is a representation of exactly what is in the food product. Each one should be labelled according to its total ingredients.

According to the article in the Guardian the food companies have spent over £800 million lobbying against the traffic light system in Europe as they are more in favour of the ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’ system (GDA) . That seems to be money well spent as the European Parliament, last month, voted in favour of the GDA system.

So how does GDA work? It tells you what your total recommended daily rate of intake should be for carbs, sugars, fats, saturated fats and salt and then how much of that total the food you have in your hand is going to take up. Keep a tally of what you are eating and it’s golden, no problem. Actually, quite a big problem because I’m diabetic (the clue is in the blog title) and the GDA is based entirely on an ‘average’ person.

‘GDAs have been developed for healthy adults, over 18 years of age of normal weight. GDAs are not targets for individual adults to aim for, but provide additional information to statutory labelling requirements which can be used as a guideline to help people understand how many calories, and how much fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, protein, total sugars, fibre and salt can be eaten for a healthy diet.’ (Report of the IGD/PIC Industry Nutrition Strategy Group Technical Working Group on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) p.5)

SO the FDF are against the traffic light system because it makes assumptions about consumers’ diets, where as their system makes assumptions about the consumers. From what I have learnt neither of these systems is perfect and each one is a guideline or opinion.

What GDA does is to make me think I can have that chocolate bar because it’s under my GDA for chocolate for the day. Don’t get me wrong, GDA is helpful, important even, but it doesn’t allow me to make a real choice about the healthiness of my overall diet – it provides no context. What the traffic light system does is encourage me to pick up an apple instead. The FSA has played a fantastic role in trying to help us glance down at our supermarket trolleys and understand the overview of our diets – are they generally red, amber or green?

The NHS spends over £100m each year (source, on treating emergency admissions to hospital for conditions, such as diabetes, that should have been better managed in the community, and much more again on paying for my daily intake of pills alone. The Health Secretary will launch his White Paper on a platform of patient choice – food labelling is key to giving us the information we need.

So here’s what I propose, keep the GDA measures because they are helpful and combine them with the traffic light system based on the ‘whole’ food product you have in your hand. That way you have even more food knowledge. Should it produce “some confusing results” as the FDF told me, well, that’s only where most of us are at now. There should be no debate about one or the other – it has to be both. So come on Mr Lansley, help out a diabetic who wants to stay out of hospital. Please.

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