How many of us scrutinise the content labels of the food we buy?
Although mindful of their health, many shoppers tend to be more conscious of the price of the products they put in their supermarket trolleys.
So the question is, are shoppers going to change their habits in light of the new food labelling system? According to recent reports, food labelling is to be made consistent across all supermarkets so shoppers can easily spot the healthiest options.
The new system will include information on guideline daily amounts (GDAs), a colour-coded traffic-light system with the words ‘high’ ‘medium’ or ‘low’ to inform people about how much fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories are in food products.
But Verner Wheelock, who runs Skipton-based food industry training provider Verner Wheelock Associates, believes the new system is “pointless”.
He believes the real problem is that, despite the fat content of the national diet going down, this hasn’t had an impact on obesity levels.
He believes people are being encouraged to eat low-fat products which are often high in sugar and carbohydrates.
“If you look back at the changes that have occurred, the fat content has definitely gone down, but most of that is, in my view, not because of nutritional labelling but because of the low-fat products that are very heavily marketed. And in a lot of cases, what has happened is that fat has been replaced by sugar and other carbohydrates,” explains Verner.
“The critical thing is not about how much fat is in there, it’s about how much fat you eat and that depends on how much you eat.”
Verner isn’t convinced that the new system will help to promote healthy eating and believes many people will not understand it.
He says that while some people may understand the traffic light system, the question is how many people will use it to decide what food they are going to buy?
“The reality is it will be very few people indeed,” he says. “If they standardise it, it will have very little impact on influencing what people choose.”
Price, taste, environmental factors and convenience – how quick the food is to prepare – may be more likely to sway shoppers’ choices.
Verner believes it is down to the individual what factors they take into consideration when buying food and, for some, health will not be a consideration.
“The reality is that within the whole context, except for the very dedicated people, health or nutrition will not be an important element,” he says.
The new labelling system is expected to be in use by summer next year.
A Department of Health spokesman says: “We stand by our proposals. It is clear that labelling can have an impact and improve consumers’ ability to choose healthier foods. Consistent labelling by industry helps people make use of the label, which is why we have set out proposals for a consistent and clear approach across the UK.
“Eating fewer calories is key to tackling obesity. That is why we issued a calorie reduction challenge to the nation last year. Through the Responsibility Deal, we are working with industry to cut calories in the food we all commonly buy.”
Peter Hollins, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation, welcomes the move.
“This is a quantum leap for public health and the result of tireless work by health campaigners and positive action by our governments,” he says.
“It’s now down to each and every retailer and manufacturer to step up and introduce these consistent front-of-pack food labels, including traffic light colours, so shoppers can make healthy food choices at a glance.”
Martyn Jones, Morrisons Group corporate services director, says: “A labelling system which combines GDAs and traffic lights and is based on common nutritional criteria would help customers make healthier choices.
“Over the coming months we will be working hard to make this a reality.”