n4 nutrition

Making sense of food labelling

Diets, General Nutrition, Weight - Body Shape and Composition, Womens Health, Healthy Eating, Food Industry
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What do you look at when you read a food label - the amount of kilojoules, the saturated fat, sugar, sodium, or fibre content of the food?  Each one is important but it can be difficult to see the whole picture.

In Australia, compulsory food labelling only needs to include the nutritional information panel (NIP).  The NIP can be small and difficult to interpret and therefore not always conducive to making healthy food choices. While studies show consumers can read and interpret a label on a single product, they struggle to make product comparisons. Furthermore, people tend to make comparisons on one nutrient only and this often ends up being the fat content.

Front of pack (FoP) labelling in the form of a percentage of daily intake (%DI) system is utilized by some of the major Australian food companies. This gives nutritional information at a glance which makes products easier to compare. However, the system is based on serve size rather than per 100 g and serve sizes are not standardized in Australia.

Traffic light food labelling, another FoP system, has been approved for use in the UK and gives separate information on fat, saturated fat, salt and sugars. The traffic light colours, red, amber and green, are used to show if a food is high, moderate or low in one of the above nutrients. The advantage of this system in the UK is that serve sizes are standardized. Research has shown that FoP systems such as %DI and traffic light colours have a high level of comprehension by the public and are most powerful when combined into one FoP system.

The Australian Government has not yet approved a traffic light food labelling system but some organizations have gone ahead and developed it anyway. The George Institute, a public health research body at the University of Sydney, and Bupa have teamed up to develop the FoodSwitch app. FoodSwitch is a free iPhone app which uses the camera function to scan barcodes in a supermarket and presents the consumer with immediate easy to understand nutritional information. It uses a colour coded system (red, amber and green) to tell you straight away whether it is a healthy option based on its total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content per 100 g. The aim is to help Australians make healthier food choices.

This is a great step forward in helping consumers make instant product comparisons and by empowering them with access to information on healthier choices. FoodSwitch compares nutrients in products per 100 g or ml rather than per serve which means comparisons are standardized as long as you compare like with like (i.e. comparing two cereals rather than a cereal with a bottle of olive oil).

However, colour-coding nutrients per 100 g or ml also has its down side. Lets take oils as an example. Healthy unsaturated fats are essential in the diet and are usually eaten in small amounts. However, because the app looks at the fat content per 100 ml, healthy oils such as olive, sunflower, safflower and flaxseed oil all get a big red light for fat indicating they are less healthy choices. These are healthy choices when you eat them by the serve size!

The FoodSwitch app also fails to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fats. A good example is nuts. Raw unsalted nuts are important in the diet in small quantities and are believed to reduce the risk of chronic disease. However, due to their fat content, the FoodSwitch app deems them a less healthy choice by giving them a red light for fat and saturated fat. This can be misleading and may steer people away from eating nuts.

On the other hand, some unhealthy foods pretty much get the green light. Coca-cola only gets a red light for sugars but gets green lights for fat, saturated fat and salt while the diet version gets green lights all the way. Does this mean that Coca-cola is a healthy choice for an everyday drink? I think not!

The FoodSwitch app will empower consumers by giving them instant access to easy to understand nutritional information and healthier food options. FoodSwitch is a great app, it has a huge database, its easy to use and it gives you a list of healthier alternatives. However, if you use FoodSwitch, keep in mind the app does not tell the whole story as I have highlighted with the examples above.


Author: Emily Greenfield


Further reading

 Sydney Morning Herald: Phone app gives consumers green light on food buys 

Bupa: Three easy steps to a healthier diet!



 Dr Alan Barclay, Nutrition and Food Law, University of Sydney 2011 

Making sense of food labelling