The unhealthy packaged food you buy your family may be high in sugar, salt and saturated fat – all of which have been directly linked to life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, one of the reasons that many people are unable to make healthier food choices is because the labels on packaged food products are unclear and confusing. It’s therefore important for people to know what’s hidden in their food so they can make more informed food choices, which is why advocacy group, Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA), is rolling out a media campaign in September, calling for bold front-of-package labels (FoPLs).
Nzama Mbalati, HEALA’s Programme’s Manager, says: “New research shows that warning labels on unhealthy packaged food would be a feasible and equitable policy to help South Africans identify and reduce purchasing of unhealthy food.”1
“While new draft legislation on packaging is waiting in the wings, there have been protracted delays, so HEALA is urging consumers and community organisations, traditional leaders and NGOs to call for change. It is time to empower shoppers with the information they need to make the right decisions and protect their families’ health,” says Mbalati.
Mbalati continues: “At the moment, one needs to be as informed as a dietician to know what the information at the back of a packet of food means. To empower consumers, we need front-of-package labels to help them identify what the industry is selling to them.”
The nationwide campaign, ‘What’s in our Food?’, which will be flighted on television, radio and digital media, urges people to question what hidden ingredients can be found in pre-packaged foods. These account for spiralling levels of obesity as well as preventable non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and some cancers which kill up to 43% of people.
Makoma Bopape, senior lecturer at the University of Limpopo’s Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, is part of a team that completed a study on the efficacy of front-of-package labels in parental food purchasing. Bopape says the research indicates that children in both urban and rural settings are the most vulnerable consumers of ultra-processed foods.
These children – and their parents – are also the targets of aggressive advertising campaigns by large food companies which mislead people into believing that products such as fruit juices, yoghurt and breakfast cereals are healthy, when they are often laced with sugar, salt and processed carbohydrates.
Bopape says: “Increasing childhood obesity and poor eating habits have resulted in children as young as 12 being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and related lifestyle diseases. Ultimately, poor eating is not only endangering the physical health of the younger generation but also impacting on their mental health as overweight children tend to become isolated and depressed.”
She says that, while research showed that poor buying choices were also the result of lack of nutritional knowledge amongst parents and caregivers who were the main decision makers when purchasing food for children, even consumers who were aware of nutrition-related issues quickly became discouraged when attempting to read food labels.
“People cannot make sense of what all of those numbers on food labels represent. We also found that a lot of people do not read labels because of lack of time. The ingredient list is long and few people can go through each and every item, so they end up looking for just one or two specific ingredients,” says Bopape.
The end result is that, even though the nutrition information is there, it just becomes part of the packaging, serving no purpose at all.
Mbalati says: “Amazingly, even tobacco smokers know more about what they are purchasing and why they are endangering their health because regulations have been put in place and there are clear warnings on the front of cigarette packets. We feel that there is enough evidence to link poor diet with obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers, which is why we need foods that cross the threshold of safety to carry warnings, now.”
HEALA’s decision to ramp up its campaign this year is in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations that governments must legislate the use of easy-to-understand nutrition labels so that consumers think twice before placing foods that are high in sugar, salt or saturated fat in their shopping baskets.
Front-of-package label regulations have already been implemented in at least 10 countries, including Argentina, Mexico and Chile.
Bopape and her fellow researchers have put forward an example of a suitable front-of-package label which was central to discussions with parents in the province of Limpopo during their research process. This provides sufficient information for parents to rethink a buying decision during the 10 seconds that it takes the average purchaser to select an item and place it in a trolley.
“We encourage all South Africans to carefully consider the contents of the food they are eating and giving to their children, particularly processed, packaged foods. We also invite the public to join the #whatsinourfood campaign and demand to know what’s in their food,” says Mbalati.