Food labelling – worth paying attention to?

How important is food labelling, and who’s really reading them? PerfectlyRandom and TheRationalOptimist debate whether labels are worth paying attention to.

PerfectlyRandom:

Ever heard of stabilisers E451i, E407a, or E410? Or thickener E407, emulsifier E508, maltodextrin, or flour treatment agent E300? What about corn starch? Or acetic acid?

The honest truth is, without any context, it’s difficult to know whether something is good or bad for us.

We need to have some fat in our diet, not all sugars are bad, carbohydrates can be the enemy or essential energy depending on who you talk to, and oh, did you know that there’s good and bad cholesterol? And how many times have you heard that low fat and lighter options might indeed be 30% lighter than the full fat versions, but are actually packed full of sugars or artificial thickeners?

The mix of messages we are continually bombarded with surrounding our diet is confusing, to say the least. Add to that the fact that the suggested daily calorie intake (2,000 for women and 2,500 for men) varies depending on age, level of physical activity undertaken, genetic predispositions, and even the climate that you live in, and you’ve suddenly got a whole melting pot of not-quite-proven information on which you’re supposed to try and make decisions.

But putting aside our potential ignorance or knowledge of nutrition as mere consumers, there remains one very stark reason why food labelling isn’t worth paying attention to: it isn’t consistent. In some countries it is mandatory to separately state the amount of saturated fat contained, in others (like the UK) it isn’t. Does that mean it’s not really that important?

Some food manufacturers use the traffic light system on packs to categorise products as high, medium or low in fat, sugar and salt – however the UK Food and Drink Federation explicitly state that they object to the use of this system as it is potentially misleading, since it takes no account of portion sizes or how the food is consumed in the context of the whole daily diet.

Ultimately, we need to make decisions surrounding our diets based on common sense – not based on what a label supposedly tells us (or doesn’t). Listening to our bodies usually provides us with all the answers we need, whether we choose to pay attention or not. Foods that are likely to be good for us probably don’t make us feel queasy or have burning after effects – but what’s fine for one person, isn’t necessarily right for another. Make up your own mind about how you feel physically, don’t rely on what a food manufacturer tells you.

food labelling cartoon

TheRationalOptimist

In today’s body-conscious world, we spend inordinate amounts of money on gym memberships and boot camp classes, as well as weight loss programs and slimming shakes. If we are are serious about the health and well-being of our bodies, then we should definitely be paying attention to what we’re putting in our bodies by reading food labels.

These days, there is so much faux food masquerading as food that it’s difficult to know what you’re putting inside your body. This is why food labelling is important. Almost everything purchased from the supermarket has some sort of additive, thickener, preservative, colour, or emulsifier, and food labelling is the only way that you can compare your choices in an informed manner. And this is the point of labelling – to be informed about your choices and what you are putting in your body.

This is essential if you have allergies or food intolerances, or just want to make healthier choices. Without food labelling, you wouldn’t be able to see if that chocolate bar you were buying was suitable for your nut allergy or coeliac condition. You wouldn’t be able to see how much sugar was in that juice, and whether it was 100% fruit juice or only 5% juice bulked out with a crapload of added sugar that will make your kids high as a kite. We need food labelling to tell us whether something is made locally or overseas so that we can make a choice to support local growers or manufacturers.

We may not fully understand what the labels are telling us, what each of those exotic E numbers are, and whether 8g of fat is a lot or only a little, but having this information is a starting point for us to make informed decisions about our diets and our health.

examining food labelling

* Images courtesy of sbs.com.au and smh.com.au

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