Putting a front on nutrition labels

Putting a front on nutrition labels

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The purpose of nutrition labels on food packaging is to provide information to help consumers make informed healthy choices for their diet. In this review in Nutrition, the authors question the effectiveness of such labels and discuss why they could be misleading.     

The prevalence of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) related to unhealthy diets has policy makers proposing front of pack nutrition labels (FOPNLs), in the hope of assisting consumers in making healthy choices. The aim is for shoppers to self-identify their intake levels of specific nutrients for which excessive intake is not recommended (such as fats, salt/sodium, or sugars) depending on their own health status.  

FOPNLs can be categorised as non-directive, semi-directive, or directive, distinguished by the extent to which they provide instruction to the consumer and usually based on nutrient-specific information. However, researchers point out that foods are not eaten as isolated nutrients and the reduction of a single nutrient is rarely associated with a decreased risk in NCDs.   

The authors outline two aspects that should be considered:   

Lifestyle context: people eat meals that make up a diet. For example, the Mediterranean diet is highly plant-based and about 20% lower in protein than a Western diet, which itself is often lacking in fibre. Healthy dietary patterns are strongly associated with a decrease in mortality from non-communicable disease.   

Socioeconomic gaps in diet quality also need to be taken into account, as the affluent have more access to higher-quality, nutrient-dense but typically more expensive food. In contrast, lower-income households often rely on cheap, processed, and energy-dense foods.  

Virtual studies have been done to investigate the efficacy of FOPNLs in modifying consumer behaviour and health status with conflicting results. The authors of this paper call for the direct link between FOPNLs and health status to be proven, and for the emergence of new tools to advise consumers on sustainable, healthy diets. These tools will need to account for a far more diverse range of individual-specific factors and values than recommendations on single nutrients.  

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