If you can’t say what’s in it, don’t eat it

As plans for a new food labelling system are introduced, shouldn't it be more obvious what's in the ingredients?

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In the same way that the only honest weight-loss advice could be given in four words – Eat Less, Move More – the only honest way to label food would be Good for you, OK and Bad for you.

Instead, as we know from yesterday’s announcement of a voluntary labelling system to be introduced into supermarkets, next year we will have a uniform High, Medium and Low grading. This replaces the equally nebulous “traffic lights” of red, amber and green that many retailers have been using.

Any system that makes harried and hungry consumers stop and think about what they toss in their basket is a good thing. But, really, can’t we do better than a combination of colour coding, wording and percentage points that does little to simplify anything and won’t do much to cut obesity.

I can see the thinking that suggests that those consumers with the least time and – perhaps – nutritional nous need guidance. A combination of differing package sizes, weights and measures (some are grams and some millilitres for almost identical products) and portion-size suggestions is enough to confuse Heston Blumenthal and his digital scales.

"It’s what we’re eating that’s more of a problem, not how much of it"

But let’s get real – it’s what we’re eating that’s more of a problem, not how much of it. By the inexact method that has been devised (and will be debated by the Department of Health and interested parties today), a delicious, calcium-packed cheddar would have warning signs on it, being high in fat, and salty. But isn’t a little bit of cheese better for us than a processed cheese-flavoured product? You know the ones, those that have been advertised to death on TV and come in bright, cartoon-clad packaging; the ones your children clamour for.

When my daughter was much younger, she trailed around Sainsburys after me, begging for them and, like the bossy-boots that I am, I said that if she could read me the ingredients, she could have it (knowing full well that chemical names with eight syllables are beyond the comprehension of, well, all of us). She was rather dejected, but choosing a selection of fun-size real cheeses perked her up.

It won’t look pretty, but what should be printed large on the front of all processed food packaging – because that’s what we’re really talking about in terms of what impacts on our health – is a list of what’s inside. Many claim to be preservative and colouring free, but there are plenty of components you can’t pronounce. Printing it in microscopic lettering inside the fold on the bottom of the box should be banned. Disguise Less, Inform More.

An aside: after hearing Asda’s corporate affairs director, Sian Jarvis, on the Today programme this morning, talking about how the confectionery (largely chemically sweetened, colour and flavour enhanced, chewy pap) it sells at two out of three of every checkouts in its stores makes no difference to “busy mums’ buying habits”, how about putting apples or seed bars there instead. No? Thought not.

Twitter: @lisamarkwell

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