Educating a nation of how to eat well, and guidance on what makes a well balanced and nutritious diet has been an uphill struggle.
Food manufacturers are likely to make a product sound healthier if it means making more sales - but what appears on the packet doesn’t always equate to what’s inside.
Traceability has become increasingly important for the buyer. The knowledge of where the food originates and what’s inside the product is essential information for most. The horse meat scandal was a prime example of misleading consumers, by marketing products as containing only beef or pork content, and tests revealing a more sinister story. It’s made us more wary of what’s in our food and what we should be eating.
So how are consumers ever meant to know if what they are eating is really as healthy as it makes out, or what really lurks inside?
The sure fire way to know that your food is as healthy and fresh as it can be, is to buy the ingredients and make the food from scratch. TV chefs and cookery programmes are encouraging us to be more hands on in the kitchen, but when time is precious and you’re eating on the run, food labelling is crucial to give us guidance on what’s going in our bodies.
The Government has just announced that a new consistent form of food labelling is to be introduced in the UK. The information is to be clearly displayed on the front of packets, and it will use the colour coding system and nutritional information to show exactly how much fat, salt, sugar and calories are inside the product.
This is great news for those consumers who care about what goes into their bodies, but what’s not great is that this is still a voluntary system, and as it’s not law to provide this information on products, only just over 60 per cent of foods will be covered by this new system.
Consumer groups have welcomed the news as the introduction of a consistent system of food has been lacking in the UK food industry, with many product labels dubbed confusing at best, and completely useless at worst. After a decade of debate over the issue, the news comes at a time when we are more than ever concerned about what’s in our food.
It is hoped that a more clearly defined labelling system that the consumer will understand will help to combat the levels of obesity, which are rising across the UK. Diseases such as heart disease and diabetes can also be controlled better with a greater level of food understanding, and knowing the intakes of particular salts and sugars.
The reason it’s been so problematic getting a consistent system has been partly due to industry leaders agreeing on the best way to label products, and mandatory regulations need European agreement.
The traffic light system is something that has been used for some time on many products and colour coding seems to be the consumers’ preferred method of checking what’s in a product. Research by the Food Standards Agency showed that consumers prefer traffic light labelling because it offers key information "at a glance".
The new product labels are set to be rolled out of many of the major food groups over the next 18 months and will be featured in stores such as the major supermarkets, which will include the labels on their own-brand products, and many well-known manufacturers.
Public health minister Anna Soubry said: "By having all the major retailers and manufacturers signed up to the consistent label, we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food - this is why I want to see more manufacturers signing up and using the label."
And Charlie Powell, director of the Children's Food Campaign, said the move was pleasing, adding: "There are now no excuses - all food companies should follow suit and the government should name and shame any which drag their feet."
The labels will help consumers to understand better their recommended daily intakes of salt, sugars and fats, and can help people who are watching their weight. It is hoped that the move will be a serious health benefit to consumers across the UK and make it more understandable.
While there is no substitute for cooking meals from scratch using fresh produce, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to completely avoid pre-packed foods or ready meals in some form. But we, as consumers, have the right to know and understand what we are putting into our bodies and how much is good or bad for our health. Nutritional information is vital if we are to maintain healthy lifestyles and by spending out on clear labelling we can help ourselves to live healthier and longer lives.
Essentially, efficient labelling - in the long term - will save money on Britain’s healthcare bills.
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