Many people are unable to make healthier food choices because the labels on packaged food products are unclear and confusing. It’s imperative people know what contents make up their food so they can make more informed food choices.
“What’s In Our Food?” is a nationwide campaign that encourages people to question what undisclosed ingredients can be found in prepackaged foods. These are responsible for rising obesity rates as well as preventable non-communicable diseases like heart disease, hypertension and some cancers, which kill up to 43% of people.
The unhealthy packaged food you buy for your family may be high in sugar, salt and saturated fat, all of which have been linked to life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, which is why the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) is launching a media campaign in September calling for bold front-of-package labels (FoPLs).
Makoma Bopape, a senior lecturer in the Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Limpopo, is a member of a research group looking into the effectiveness of front-of-package labels in influencing parental food purchases. She said research shows that children are the most vulnerable consumers of highly processed foods, whether they live in urban or rural areas.
She added that large food corporations use these kids and their parents as the targets of aggressive advertising campaigns that lead consumers to believe that foods like fruit juices, yoghurt, and breakfast cereals are healthy when in reality they are frequently loaded with sugar, salt and refined carbohydrates.
She said even consumers who were aware of nutrition-related issues quickly became discouraged when attempting to read food labels.
Research has shown that poor purchasing decisions were also caused by parents’ and caregivers’ lack of nutritional knowledge, and they were the primary decision-makers when purchasing food for children.
“People have no idea what all of those numbers on food labels mean.” Research also discovered that many people do not read labels due to a lack of time, she said.
Nzama Mbalati, programme manager of Heala, said “caution labels” on unhealthy packaged foods would be a feasible and equitable policy to reduce unhealthy food consumption among South Africans.
“We must empower shoppers with the right information so they can make the right choices and protect the health of their families,” said Mbalati.
She added that 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, front-of-package labels are needed, to help identify what the industry is selling.
The nutrition information is there, it just becomes part of the packaging, serving no purpose at all, Mbalati said.
Heala’s decision to ramp up its campaign this year is in line with World Health Organization recommendations that governments require the use of simple nutrition labels so that consumers think twice before buying foods high in sugar, salt or saturated fat.
At least 10 countries, including Argentina, Mexico and Chile, have already implemented front-of-package labelling regulations.
“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,” said Mbalati.
Read the latest IOL Health DigiMag here.