Post No.: 0823
Voluntary food labelling standards have resulted in confusing, non-standardised labels that can make it difficult for consumers to compare products from different manufacturers in a like-for-like way at a glance.
The ‘traffic light system’ in the UK is currently voluntary and not standardised. So manufacturers can attempt to mislead consumers by using whichever portion sizes benefit them – where of course a (often unrealistically) small portion size will contain less fat, sugar and/or salt. Yet adult portion sizes are often used for items marketed at children(!) Different children at different developmental stages need different amounts and balances of nutrients, but no children are by definition adults.
Some people argue that ‘only an idiot would think that a family-sized chocolate bar is good enough for a meal or is for one person in one sitting’ but it’s too easy to consume a lot of ‘empty calorie’ sources that don’t make you feel full or full for very long.
Some labels can even contradict themselves. Some present what looks like a traffic light system but one that uses a neutral colour for all figures – hence with this labelling, we must still look at the numbers more than the colours.
We need what’s called perfect information (amongst some other requirements for perfect competition) for a market to self-optimise – yet the accuracy of food labelling in reality can itself be quite poor. A 20% tolerance in terms of salt is allowed, yet frequently manufacturers are way beyond that or are simply outright lying to make their products seem healthier than they really are! ~10% of products have nutrition data on their labels that can be as much as 50% out in accuracy! So even if one does read the labels carefully, one could be receiving misinformation from the manufacturers. ‘Label padding’ is also like including <1% of an ingredient to make a product seem authentic – for instance adding <1% strawberry fruit juice but still calling the product ‘strawberry’.
Corporations seldom wish to tell the unalloyed truth and only the truth, especially if twisting information boosts their brand images and maximises their profits. Commercial advertising campaigns typically involve big budgets and lashings of spin. Companies don’t just simply present pictures of their products on plain backgrounds then list their specifications – they want to associate their products and brands with desirable imagery and successful celebrities, stoke fears then claim that their product is the solution that we must purchase, obscure any negatives about their product, use buzzwords and phrases to create hyperbole, and evoke emotions rather than just appeal to reason.
It’s by no means saying that better food labelling alone will solve all health problems forever, or that unclear labelling is even one of the primary culprits of obesity, but it all adds up towards the solution – especially because better information still leaves consumers free to choose whatever they wish to do i.e. personal choice isn’t obstructed. Being well-informed is critical for us to make the best choices for ourselves.
However, the assumption that having perfect information will mean that we’ll necessarily all make the best choices for ourselves is oversimplistic for it ignores how irrational towards our long-term interests we can be, how abysmal we can be at processing and mentally calculating numerical data, or simply how lazy we can be towards reading labelling information even when it’s there. So sometimes even when manufacturers provide (more) information to consumers – many won’t be bothered to read it anyway; and it’s not even about TL;DR(!) And this is one argument why the food industry places the blame for over-consumption on consumers rather than their own products. They say that everything can be enjoyed responsibly, so if we’re not being responsible then it’s our fault as consumers.
Plenty of people indeed don’t want to know how unhealthy certain snacks or dishes are because they think that if they don’t know then they cannot feel guilty for consuming them! (It’s like some people think that if they don’t know something is a crime then it’s not a crime to them, and they wrongly assume they can use this argument as a successful defence!) So despite the nutrition information available on packaging, many people choose to almost actively ignore them, for if they learn the truth then they’d have no excuse to hide behind. Ignorance is ostensibly bliss. But this can hurt themselves, and their loved ones, if they develop obesity-related diseases.
In an experiment, when trying to market a new brand of ‘gruesome and horrible’ foods – worms, skulls, slime and eyeballs on the front of the packaging but actually really good food inside like sprouts, pasta and tomato sauce – children almost unanimously voted in favour of it. But their parents did not. From this finding, it seems that a substantial number of parents trust too much in what they see on the fronts of packages rather than what can be read on the back i.e. the true ingredients and nutrition information. This indicates that plenty of parents tend to lazily buy foods that ‘appear’ on the façade like good wholesome foods because the large print and the front of the packaging told them so, when in reality they’re not quite so on the inside and according to the small print. And they feed their kids this stuff in large quantities.
Showing kids chicken nuggets that are made predominantly from chicken skin, tendons, cartilage and fat won’t deter many of them from wanting to gobble the result once they’re formed into neat nugget shapes, bread-crumbed and fried(!)
This does all however highlight that we can get more young children to desire good nutritious foods if they’re presented and marketed in a way that appeals to them. And the lesson for adults is to read the regulated factual descriptions of products written on the sides and backs of packaging, rather than trust the marketing-spun names or the pictures of ‘wholesomeness’ on the fronts.
When we lack enough motivation to read and understand the numbers on the backs of packaging, we’re more susceptible to being influenced by the marketing – such as making assumptions when presented with words like ‘naked’ or ‘innocent’. We rely on our associations with these ‘healthy-sounding’ words. We hold stereotypes like assuming that chocolate bars always contain more sugar than fruit and nut tracker bars (even though the latter may even say ‘energy bar’ on the packaging(!)) or soft drinks always contain more sugar than fruit smoothies.
‘Low fat’ and other healthy-implying statements that are highlighted on the packaging and marketing materials often lead to people thinking that they’re actually good foods to eat plenty of for good health. Many people do interpret these statements as meaning that it’s okay to eat more of them, and they usually do end up eating more of them.
But these cherry-picked statements may hide less healthful facts, like that a product is very high in sugar – often higher than the regular versions! This is akin to claiming that a car on sale has a spectacular engine… but then not being quite as vocal about the chassis that was involved in a write-off! It’s not just about what’s good about something (or someone) but also about the rest of it (or them). It works the other way around too. For example, eggs used to have an ‘eat with caution’ label because of the fatty yolks but they’re actually quite balanced sources of food.
Products that contain ingredients that are good for our furry gut may also contain lots of other ingredients that aren’t so good for it – so again read the labels on the back. An ingredient that’s normally a probiotic may actually be over-processed in a branded product that the active bacteria are no longer live. (Capsules of probiotics are useless because the bacteria won’t survive once they come in direct contact with stomach acids too.)
And when a product says something like ‘30% less sugar’ – you’ve got to ask compared to what? It could be compared to a really rubbish benchmark.
Also, what’s ‘healthy’ depends on one’s personal and present nutritional needs anyway – so once again it’s best read the nutrition information than rely on labels like ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’.
Just the mere belief that something contains not as many calories as it really does can make someone still feel hungry after consuming it, or the mere belief that something contains more calories than it really does can make someone feel less hungry after consuming it! This demonstrates how beliefs can affect our physiological systems too (just like our emotional fears affect our physiological cortisol levels). So diet-labelled goods can end up making us want to eat more of them. For those looking to lose weight, it might therefore be better to see over-stated calorie information; and vice-versa?
Calorie labelling laws in the UK have slowly been introduced for takeaway, café and restaurant items. But even without them, every calorie still counts!
Well restaurant meal calorie labelling can work in a few different ways for different people or contexts – for some it’ll make them consider the lower calorie options, for others (men more than women) it’ll make them think about getting the most calories for their money (i.e. the opposite effect of cutting calories), and for others still it’ll make no difference. Or what can happen is that if they select a low-calorie main then they might give themselves the license to select a high-calorie starter or dessert.
Calorie labels in fast food restaurants may therefore not be that effective at changing behaviours as intended in reality (especially away from overt surveys and the observer effect). People may claim that better labelling will improve their habits but people don’t know themselves well enough. An alternative strategy may be to simply offer smaller portions and state the calorie reductions in those portions compared to the regular sized portions? (Post No.: 0469 illuminated how even things like plate sizes affect consumption.) Restaurants aren’t going to want to do this voluntarily though because they want to sell more. But as a customer, you can try asking for smaller portions in some establishments, even when they aren’t being directly advertised on the menus.
Fast food outlets pepper the high streets, and then there are the online food delivery apps to get the same kinds of foods if you don’t want to even leave the house. For an increasing number of families, what used to be the occasional treat is heading towards an almost daily event. Some people order 3 times per day! And people usually consume way more calories when ordering food than when cooking for themselves. There are often healthier options on these menus but these things aren’t what most people are there for. The same with sit-down restaurant meals – many people eat out for a treat thus don’t care. This means that food labelling isn’t going to alter people’s ordering decisions much. However, making calorie information mandatory might encourage restaurants to reformulate recipes to be less calorific.
An economist would contend that, when people seem to understand the implications of their weight, and of the nutrition information of the food choices they make, then everyone is the weight they choose to be because of their own choices. But people are seldom rational, which is an assumption that an economist may erroneously make.
And we already know that knowledge doesn’t always translate into desirable action, such as to curb over-eating (or to do many other virtuous activities like looking after the environment). People can be individually relied upon to do things for their own short-term self-interests, but not always for their own long-term self-interests, even when enlightened about them.
So although clearer and more accurate food labelling, education, health-risk information and consumer guidelines will help – it requires a lot more to tackle this obesity crisis in places like in the UK. Consumers, manufacturers and the government all need to take more responsibility and do their part.