Most consumers want to eat food that is healthy, with a high nutritive value, and turn to reading labels on food products in order to make healthier choices. Facing an increase in the rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Asia, governments in the region are looking at a variety of mechanisms to educate consumers and support them in this choice, by encouraging voluntary and mandatory labelling schemes. The food industry wants the same thing: to provide consumers with clearer food signpost labelling, and to help them make appropriate choices that are relevant to their needs.
However, with multiple labelling schemes that sometimes look more like the periodic table and cause unnecessary confusion, governments and the food industry need to work in partnership to develop and propose nutrition labels that are simple and easy to read and understand, in order to support consumers in making informed choices.
Furthermore, along with the rise in the burden of NCDs, unhealthy diets are becoming more prevalent in Asia. As such, governments and food companies need to work together to find the right balance between regulation and enhanced consumer education. The challenges in Asia are more complex than those in other parts of the world. The Asia region faces a dual burden of over-consumption and under-nutrition; and nutrition literacy is a greater challenge in Asia, since the basic level of knowledge and amount of available education resources can be much lower in some parts of the region. Without effective intervention, it is likely that obese young children will continue to be obese during adolescence and into adulthood.
An opportunity to educate consumers
Regardless of the types and amount of interventions, one thing is of paramount importance in setting the nutrition labelling agenda: mandatory or voluntary, such interventions need to be based on sound science, yet equally understandable to consumers, if they are to actually make a difference in people’s food choices and diets. Policy decisions on nutrition labelling need to be science-based, according to a 2015 Global Update on Nutrition Labelling
report, from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC). The report emphasises that policy decisions should take into consideration “consumer use, interpretation and understanding” of nutrition labelling.
In an article in the Global Journal of Health Science, titled “‘I rarely read the label’: Factors that Influence Thai Consumer Responses to Nutrition Labels
”, the authors identified that one year after the implementation of Front-Of-Pack (FOP) Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling on five groups of snack foods in Thailand, about 48 per cent of consumers surveyed were aware of GDA labels, 63 per cent understood the labels, and most importantly, 52 per cent of respondents were able to identify the information from the GDA labels when choosing products – a good sign, indicating that consumers in the Asia region can use labelling to make informed choices if they are able to read and understand them.
In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) introduced the Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) on packaged food products many years ago, to indicate that such products are a healthier option, in order to help consumers make informed food choices when shopping for groceries. The HCS logo is found on products that are generally lower in total fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar amounts. Some products with the symbol are also higher in dietary fibre and calcium, compared to similar products within the same food category. The HPB website indicated that seven in 10 Singaporeans are aware of the HCS, and that around 69 per cent of them use the symbol to guide them in making healthier choices. Again, this is an indication of how a front-of-pack nutrition-related symbol can support healthier eating habits alongside GDA labelling.
In this era of responsible business, the food industry has a tremendous opportunity to use schemes, such as HCS and FOP GDA labelling, to educate consumers on the nutrition value of a product, and thereby support healthier and more holistic consumer eating habits.
Why Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling?
Research has shown that it is the overall diet of an individual, and not the consumption of individual nutrients, that impacts his or her health and wellness. The FOP GDA labelling system highlights the amount and percentage contribution of an average person’s daily intake, giving him or her a better understanding of how products should be consumed within a balanced diet and lifestyle. Science-based guidelines, such as the GDA scheme, give consumers a better understanding of how a single food product contributes to a balanced diet, allowing them to make more informed choices.
GDA labels show the amount of calories present in a suggested portion, while also informing consumers of the percentage of their guideline daily amount for calories within each portion. GDA labels for calories and key nutrients provide a balanced perspective of a food item’s nutritional value per serve. By having a label that is consistent across different brands, FOP GDA labelling gives consumers consistent and useful dietary information. This means that consumers can pick the products that best suit their needs.
Being able to quickly identify the amount of calories in a product makes it simple for consumers to focus on the most important factor, which is maintaining their energy balance, so that they can make simple changes for diet improvement.
GDAs and nutritional information have been available on the back of packs for many years in most countries. Presenting a more concise version of this information on the front of packs would, therefore, be a logical step for industry, as it seeks to make labelling clearer and more accessible for consumers.
Expansion of labelling schemes
The implementation of labelling schemes such as the HCS in Singapore and GDAs are becoming more widespread, as consumers start to look more closely at product labels for guidance towards better food choices.
Research carried out by Food Industry Asia (FIA) in 2012, and subsequently at the end of 2015, has shown that a higher number of its member companies is adopting GDA labelling across more countries in Asia, as well as in more product categories. The research has also identified future plans to implement GDA labelling across even more markets in the coming years. As such, there is widespread acceptance of GDA labelling within the food and beverage industry in Asia.
However, according to a Nielsen report that was published in 2012, more than half of the world’s population states that they have trouble understanding nutrition labelling in general. It is clear, therefore, that a multi-faceted approach that includes raising awareness and nutrition education, beginning at home and in schools, is needed.
International research repeatedly highlights that parents can play an influential role in addressing issues related to obesity and NCDs, by driving nutrition education and fostering healthy eating habits. A review in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, titled “Nurturing healthy dietary habits among children and youth in Singapore
”, cites research showing that most dietary habits are formed at a young age – many of these habits are formed in children below the age of 5, and become increasingly difficult to change after 11-18 years of age. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute, titled, “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis
”, found sufficient evidence that empowered and educated parents bring about positive behavioural change, with regard to childhood obesity. However, to support nutrition education in the home, schemes like GDA labelling first need to be properly understood by consumers.
Public and private sector initiatives have been launched in countries across Asia to help increase awareness and the understanding of nutrition labelling. For example, the introduction of GDA labelling in Thailand was supported by a roadshow focused on consumer education.
If nutrition labelling schemes like GDAs are to be successful, they need to be accompanied by education programmes to motivate consumers to use the information on the pack, so as to make the right dietary choices for their needs.
Tackling the rising incidence of overweight and obesity in Asia is a complex challenge that involves societal and science-based solutions. FOP GDA labelling is a valuable tool to help people understand more about the nutritional value of the foods that they’re eating. However, the introduction of these systems should be accompanied by a full range of multi-stakeholder programmes that encourage greater nutrition literacy and physical activity, to ensure a positive shift in healthy eating and living.
Matt Kovac is the Executive Director at Food Industry Asia (FIA).
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