Food labelling

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Food Labelling

Food labelling should be simple, shouldn’t it? In fact, can’t we just look at food packaging and be totally clear on what we’re eating?

Unfortunately, food labelling is so complex that there is a committee that meets regularly to discuss ongoing issues and when you delve down into the minutiae of this complicated area you soon realise that it is anything but straightforward. Despite attempts to simplify labelling, we’re still unable to know with certainty whether something is healthy, where it’s from, how it was produced and whether it meets our moral and ethical standards.

For instance, the introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) food into our diet has caused much controversy and for those people who want to avoid it, they should in theory be able to identify what is GM and what isn’t. However, whilst GM food has to be labelled as GM, products produced with GM technology or produce from animals fed with GM feed e.g. meat, eggs and milk, doesn’t have to be labelled as GM.

Another case in point is the ‘horse-meat’ scandal, where many supermarket meat products were found to contain horse-meat even though they were labelled as containing meat such as beef. To appease us we were told that if meat displays the ‘red tractor’ logo it is guaranteed to meet “responsible production standards and is fully traceable back to independently inspected farms in the UK. Yet, an investigation found that it was highly likely that one source of meat carrying this logo originated from outside the UK. If this one, how many more?

Bread also may contain unexpected ingredients, such as enzymes derived from pig, and unless you’re familiar with the word ‘phospholipase’ it’s unlikely you would know that this came from pig pancreatic tissue. There are also dough conditioners and enriching agents found in bread that you need to spend time investigating to understand what they are and where they derive from.

The voluntary traffic light system lists the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars, salt and calories in food items and gives values of these per 100g and what % they are of an adult’s daily reference intake, but not a child’s, which can be confusing and frustrating for parents.

However, it’s not just the labelling that’s confusing but also the messages we receive. For instance, ‘low fat’ products are marketed as being healthy when actually they’re often high in sugar and of course, not all fat is unhealthy. We need ‘essential fats’ to remain healthy, and yet many would have us believe that the opposite is true.

There are many pitfalls and little clarity in food labelling. Even if we buy organic food, there may be different terms for it such as ‘100% organic, ‘organic’ and ‘made with organic ingredients’, depending on how much organic ingredients are contained in the food.

I wrote this blog with the intention of explaining how to use food labels confidently, but by the end of it I realise that I couldn’t. Producing your own food from scratch is the only way you’ll have the confidence to know that you’re getting what you think you’re getting. If you don’t have the time or resources to do this, then try to buy food that has been processed as little as possible. The more natural its state the less likely it will be to contain unwanted extras.

Bio: Elizabeth Cooper is a Nutritional Therapist who runs several clinics, both privately and for a leading health charity, around Leeds and Harrogate. She is also co-author of a healthy lifestyle booklet for children.


16 Jul, 2014

10 thoughts on “Food labelling

  1. You would think they would make food labelling easier for the consumer. With all the new terms and food products we need to take a course in college to understand it all.

    I buy organic when I can. Here in the States, the problem I run into is that the organic is so much more expensive than the not organic foods. If I could afford it I would go to the farmers market every week and buy food there.

    Some of my family members have a garden every year and I’m able to take some vegetables from them. Last night I got cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash, which I’m fond of. At least I know it’s not GM food and I think GM food needs to be labeled as GM.

    We do need to be well informed and the food industry is mostly responsible for that. Very good, informative post. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Lisa. I agree with your sentiments. Organic is so much more expensive than your non-organic and as the consumer buying food products we do need to be told if something is genetically modified.

      I am really not sure how far the food industry have come, but since the food industry is governed by Government, I think it is up to the Government to make sure the simple facts are out there for us to understand.

      I think you’re right, we do really need to take a course in college to understand it all!

      1. Something else I thought of this morning, while I was re-reading this post.

        A few years ago before convenience food came around, people bought home grown or fresh foods and the prices weren’t outrageous like today. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have the issues we do today.

        Then the ‘fast foods’ and ‘convenience’ foods came in and the manufactures found it cheaper and could make more money. And if you wanted the good stuff, they made sure you paid for it by hiking the prices up.

        I think technology also screwed us up in the food industry. People are lazy and don’t want to work so hard to produce what in the long run would benefit them the most.

        1. Exactly! And we’re all paying the price and not in monetary terms either. I couldn’t agree more.

          We need to be able to say these things and others to do something about it, particularly when it comes to compromising on people’s health.

  2. This is a great blog. It is so well written even I can understand it!

    It is a disgrace that we really can’t trust food labelling. I do try to look at the nutritional information on packing and it is a real ‘eye-opener’ when you start comparing simple things like the sugar and salt contents of every day essentials like breakfast cereals. I also try to buy organic too, but as Elizabeth points out ‘organic’ is a term that can be applied quite loosely.

    I would have thought the red, amber, green traffic light system would have simplified matters, but clearly we even have to look beyond that to see the real nutritional analysis.

    Thanks for arranging Elizabeth’s blog, I found it very informative and easy to understand.

    1. I’m pleased you like Elizabeth’s blog. It’s so important to get this kind of information out there.
      As you say Elizabeth’s blog is both informative and easy to understand and that always helps.

      I also think that Unless these things are pointed out, we wouldn’t know to look or wouldn’t understand.

  3. I’ve wondered about these things myself, like growth hormones for cows and what it would do to people in the long term.

    Kids seem to be maturing at very young ages so that’s a real possibility that they could be affected. It does seem like they don’t want to have to label products as GM, but it would be nice to know!

    I’ve heard so much talk about “gluten-free” products but what about everything else? We seem to be living in a fast food world but what price will we pay for it in the long run?

    1. Thanks Randy. I think more people deal with illness now than they did when I was growing up.

      I believe there is truth in what you say, but without any evidence the Government will continue to allow farmers to add chemicals to their crops.

      I also there is a possible link to problems with our health too.

  4. I think Randy’s comment about “the long run” is the nub of this issue.

    What we eat today clearly affects us in the future and that should be the key question asked by food manufacturers. Just because there is no apparent ‘evidence’ of harm now doesn’t mean to say there wont be in the future.

    Unfortunately this is way down the list as it hits food manufacturers where it hurts, at the shareholders annual meeting and in the balance sheet.

    Good point, Randy.

    1. Thank you! I agree with Randy’s original response to my food labelling blog and your response to Randy. What we eat today will affect in us in the future. There is no doubt in my mind.

      Regardless of what the Government stipulate, manufacturers and farmers are both responsible for how they process and produce food.

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