The nonsense of food labeling

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I’ve always thought that the health claims made by food manufacturers are largely meaningless. For example, a food product can be advertised as ‘low in saturated fat’ or ‘cholesterol free’ but there is no good evidence that eating less of these particular foodstuffs has broad benefits for health. The ‘benefits’ of eating a food low in saturated fat/cholesterol are, I think, perceptual more than based in any form of fact. Also, even if dietary saturated fat and/or cholesterol had been proven to be detrimental to health, that does not necessarily make a food with low levels of these substances in automatically healthy: cow dung could be labeled ‘low in saturated fat’ and ‘cholesterol free’ but that does not make it good to eat.

I noticed a news report over the weekend (see here) which concerns proposed European legislation regarding the labeling of food. The story informs us that the UK consumer watchdog Which? warns that if proposed labeling laws are taken up, more than 90 per cent of food products would be able to make some nutrition claim or other. Essentially, according to Which?, the thresholds under which claims can be made about things such as fat and sugar content are just set too high. We are facing a situation, therefore, where we could see doughnuts and burgers being advertised and marketed as ‘low fat’.

This news report contains a quote from a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency telling us that, The FSA’s view is that we must ensure that health claims do not mislead consumers. Draft proposals are being discussed by all Member States at an EC level and we are pushing actively for legislation which puts consumers’ interests first.

I was a bit surprised by this, because the FSA’s track record does not suggest this organisation always puts consumers’ interests first. I believe the agency continues to mislead the public about what is good and not-so-good to eat. It warns, for instance, about the perils of saturated fat despite no good evidence this is the demon it’s made out to be. And it continues to try and convince us of the ‘value’ of starchy carbohydrates despite the fact that many of these tend to disrupt blood sugar and insulin levels in a way that predispose to conditions such as weight gain, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. I noticed the other day that Sam Montel, resident nutritionist on the FSA website, writes in response to a question on raisins that, Other healthy snacks include currant buns without icing, scones or teacakes.

Behind this, there is some evidence of the FSA having a closer than healthy relationship with the food industry. For example, here you can read about the clear conflicts of interests that members of the former FSA Advisory Committee on Research had. This committee, the role of which to advise the FSA on matters of science and research, included a full time employee of the food company Unilever. The chair of the committee also received funding from Unilever. As an addendum to this, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that Dame Deirdre Hutton, chair of the FSA no less, owns shares in Unilever as declared here.

Such conflicts of interest would not be so troublesome if the FSA appeared to be giving us honest, impartial, evidence-based advice about what we should eat. But, in my view, they have failed miserably here.

The FSA, some of you will know, also has some history of its own in the food labelling arena. A while back it introduced its ‘traffic light’ labelling scheme, which rated foods as green, amber or red on account of their sugar, salt, saturated fat and overall fat content. I have pointed out some of the misleading aspects of this scheme here. The FSA’s traffic light scheme enables oven chips to get four green lights, and therefore an implied stamp of approval from our Government as something good to eat. The FSA is right to be wary of the proposed European food labeling laws, but I reckon it needs to sharpen up its own act in the area too.

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