Standardised food labels won't end 'calorie confusion'

The obesity problem in the UK isn't going to be solved by displaying more numbers on a packet or a menu.

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The Independent Online

Today, our Government announced that by 2013, a standardised, consistent system of front-of-the-pack food labelling will be introduced, displaying a combination of guideline daily amounts, colour coding and “high, medium or low” to show how much fat, salt and sugar and how many calories are in each product.

The scheme, however, will be voluntary. Why? Because in order to be compulsory, it would need to be agreed on a European level, but some countries have declined to take part. I'm sure they have their (justified) reasons.

The UK already provides more front-of-the-pack nutritional information than any other country in Europe. The UK's women, men and young children are the most obese in Europe. You can see where this is going...

In 2009, the FSA launched a trial, asking all cafés and restaurants to publish the calorie contents of all their dishes alongside them on the menu. Plans to extend that trial were scrapped but many establishments continue to offer this nutritional information. Have obesity rates decreased as a result? No, they've continued to rise.

The Government say that they are introducing these new labels in a bid to end consumer confusion over what really is in what they are eating. They want people to see clearly labelled products and make healthy decisions based on colours and numbers. Something is missing, and that is simply having a common sense approach to, and a healthy attitude towards our choices when it come to what we decide to have for breakfast, lunch or tea (sorry, northern).

The thing is, these labels, in the main, are going to be noticed by those of us who are making an effort to be healthy and ignored by those who don't care because they choose taste over health, or don't have reason to care because they are able to make educated decisions on what makes up a balanced diet.

The people most concerned with spending hours ogling over the numbers and traffic lights quite likely wouldn't be able to tell you what a calorie even is, but will still make decisions on them. If the calories are low, they're 'boring' but 'good' and if the calories are high, they're 'naughty' and make you feel guilty. The 'good' ones are those likely to be the first to go for the biscuits, chocolate or cake in the afternoon. If you've worked in an office, you'll know what I mean.

Thankfully, many of us - the lucky ones, if you ask me - are unaware of the exact number of calories in a BLT, a hummus wrap or a double mega whopper burger, but it is a fact that the majority of people tend to underestimate the amount of calories and fat that they consume when the nutritional information isn't printed on the packet.

Some would argue that it is this ignorance that is partly to blame for our nation’s obesity problem, and perhaps it does go some way towards an explanation, but it is undeniable that we all have the common sense to know that eating burgers and fries everyday is not exactly conducive to a healthy, balanced diet. I would argue that having numbers plastered over everything we eat is not the answer to our problems and only creates an unhealthy attitude towards what we choose to put in our mouths.

This language, this bizarre belief system that we have developed, that high calorie or fatty foods are automatically ‘bad’ and ‘naughty’ has encouraged the UK to become a nation of calorie-counting idiots whose decisions around food are unfortunately laden with feelings of guilt for occasionally 'giving in to temptation' and choosing forbidden items. I cannot stress enough how strongly I feel against this kind of categorisation, and this is not even solely a rebellious response to my almost 20-year obsession with calorie counting and all the rubbish that went along with that. It's because I'm angry and frustrated that our Government thinks that we should all be slaves to numbers. If they want us to be healthy, we need to be taught a healthy approach to eating.

I hate to see office workers in the Boot's meal deal queue, deliberating for a good five or 10 minutes over which sandwich or salad they should pick up; no longer led by what they actually would like to eat, but instead staring at the packets, comparing, going back and forth debating over whether they should go for something tasty for a couple of hundred extra calories, then going back to the plainest possible thing on offer. I honestly think that labelling all our food puts a negative spin on the whole food/weight/obesity issue and I hate that a few numbers should dictate the way we feel about what we eat.

It's OK to eat 'naughty' food, it's OK to treat ourselves and it's a really messed up world if eating a slice of carrot cake can ruin our day. We know that constantly stuffing ourselves with pasties or burgers or crisps or chocolate isn’t brilliant for our waistlines, but surely we know now, as we are told constantly, that all we need is a balanced diet (that includes fats, carbohydrates just as it does protein and vitamins). It should be simple, and it can be. We don’t need to get bogged down with numbers and we really, really need to quit this obsession with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food choices, because all it does is make people feel good or bad, boring or naughty – no matter what weight or size or shape they are. Divert away from this horrible obsession we've got ourselves caught up in and we would, I think, be much better placed to make simple, healthy decisions, no baggage. With a little common sense, we should all be capable of eating a wide variety of foods of all kinds and be able to bloody well enjoy it.

Perhaps rather than trying to get the rest of Europe to join in with our 'health' schemes, we should learn a thing or two from those who don't have such a huge obesity problem.