Nutrition Labeling – The Debate

This entry is taken from a post on my Tumblr blog this morning.

Earlier this week in my Sustainable & Responsible Marketing course, we discussed the issue of food labeling and watched a documentary on the CBC’s Marketplace about the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Healthy Check labels.

I was astounded to hear that companies PAY to have this label on their products. I quickly gathered some research and looked into the site. (Have a look at their criteria here). Only recently, in September 2011, was the criteria to purchase a label modified to include “for the first time, trans fat and sugar…changes were also made for fat and fibre.”

Another alternative looked at, was The Guiding Stars. This approach is much more wholistic, in my opinion, and is more objective.

This morning, I read an article from the Globe and Mail about the same issue. In the article, a program called Facts Up Front is mentioned. I had a look of it and still don’t agree with it very much. Sure, it’s a voluntary initiative and it’s already being done by some food manufacturers, I’m just not fully convinced it does that much. Have you not seen the labels on your latest Kellogg’s cereal box?

So now what? In my opinion, if a product is going to have a label, it needs to address its audience. Busy mothers, who may not understand or have time to look at nutrition labels need some way to identify, quickly, what is “healthy.” (Even this definition needs to be regularly checked). Students or immigrants, who are unfamiliar with all the terms on a label. Seniors, who can hardly read the tiny print on the packing. I mean, % of daily value, grams of fibre, trans fat free, etc. None of that means anything if you cannot interpret it properly.

Perhaps both consumers and governments need to take a stand on this. On one hand, we, as consumers, need to be smarter. We should be responsible to educate ourselves with this health knowledge and learn to take care of our bodies. Meanwhile, on the other hand, governments need to make this material more accessible and promote its education. Maybe through communication that is easier to understand and caters to a diverse audience.

Any idea is up for discussion, but knowing there is this issue, is the first step. Let’s be honest – we’re so busy making a living and  trying to have an actual “life” with any free time we have. At the end of the day, the common person is not going to have time to look into these details. Now is it in the government’s best interest to invest more in our education or to make us more aware? Think about it.  I end with a couple of factors: obesity rates, level of academia, lifestyles of citizens, related waste issues, number of citizen requiring extended health care. It’s an entire system!

I’d be interested to know your thoughts. I hope you enjoyed the read.

(Thanks, IMPACT! I am now living and breathing the concept of Systems Thinking.)


6 thoughts on “Nutrition Labeling – The Debate

  1. Selina

    When food companies pay to have nutrition labels on their products, they do themselves and the public a favour because:

    1) It’s a form of investment that they believe would generate greater revenue. In the midst of increased public awareness on the importance of good nutrition, consumers (not all, but perhaps most or some) tend to gravitate towards products that they believe are more nutritious, better for their health, contain less fat / sugar / sodium / etc. (whether these labels and nutritional “claims” are true to what they claim to be or not is a whole other discussion). In other words, the expenditure for nutrition labeling is a form of product marketing that would increase customer demand and thus higher sales revenue.

    2) Despite the current public health policies mandating nutrition labels on most manufactured and pre-packaged products, a large percentage of the population is still not fully savvy when it comes to properly reading and interpreting the numbers, percentages, and sections on the labels (i.e., subsections of the populations that you mentioned in your post). So labels such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check and Guiding Stars become useful and efficient for shoppers in a rush, those who can’t fully decipher the numbers on labels, etc. They provide visualization for quick and easy decision-making, although they don’t instantly give the whole picture if you’re looking for specific aspects in a product (e.g., if you want low sugar cereal, a cereal box may contain a Health Check label because it’s whole grain and high in fibre but contains a lot of sugar).

    Your last paragraph brings up a very good point. There are currently public health initiatives going on to increase public awareness and knowledge to become savvy consumers and nutrition label readers. But they need to target specific subpopulations more, like new immigrants and those at the lower end of the socioeconomic bracket. Also keep in mind that a whole lot of other factors come into play: cost of the product, purchasing power, product distribution, etc. (E.g., Despite the labels, some people may choose to buy the less nutrition option if it’s cheaper or located in a more convenient location). All those decisional factors are intertwined with the factors you mentioned. At the end of the day, it’s the decision between public health dollars (preventative health measures) vs. the already mountainous cost of tertiary health care.

  2. Tammy

    Great response, Selina! You bring up many good points.

    1) When companies “purchase” the label, according to the criteria of whichever organizations sets this, it is imperative these organizations create stringent guidelines that are in accordance to the most recent research studies relating to health/nutrition. Not to say they will change often, but there needs to be a review process. I’m not even sure if the government needs to start regulating them to some extent. (Based Heart and Stroke’s older criteria, their dietitians were clearly biased…to an extent.)

    That said, these labels and the potential sales revenue attached to it, are the first step to even having food manufacturers considering healthier products. With new guidelines, it forces them to look at their products and actively make changes. When you know your consumers, your profit generators, are concerned about this issue, you, too, will be. Further, in my opinion, simply paying for these labels as a mechanism to generate more revenues, is a very short term, immediate-solution approach. Companies need to start thinking about the long-term.

    Ah, the joys of marketing!

  3. Stimulating topic, Tam! I just submitted a literature review on consumer health informatics – access, retrieval, and literacy, in particular. My thoughts on the matter:

    a) Consumers need to be able to access credible information, understand it, and be supported in applying it for health knowledge to be used to its full potential. Interventions in primary and secondary schools would help prepare health literate adults.

    b) Health care is increasingly demanding – patients are more complex, funding is limited – to achieve a healthy population, all resources must be mobilized, INCLUDING empowered, informed consumers

    c) Health care providers need to redefine their role in the client-provider relationship, let go of distrust of information-seeking clients, work in collaboration with clients, and develop strategic interventions based on clients’ information competencies

    d) Access to information – although we live in a digital world, there is a knowledge gap, and it’s growing – the people who have the worst health problems have the poorest access to information, and are lacking in information skills

    e) Literacy is threefold – i. general literacy (reading levels of health information are FAR above average literacy), ii. computer literacy, iii. health literacy, i.e., putting health information into context and being able to use it to make better health decisions

    f) Public libraries and librarians have a significant role in consumer health informatics as they are often the first point of access for consumers, offer skill-building opportunities (e.g., evaluating the credibility of information), and have relationships with communities. Health care systems and professionals need to partner with public libraries, and government funding for consumer health information is necessary

    g) Health informatics competencies are required for clinicians in their basic training, and in continuing education, to support their own evidence-based practice, and also to support client use and to aid in client education/discharge teaching – in the ideal world, clinicians would go above and beyond and integrate with virtual health communities, e.g. on twitter

    h) A health informatics framework designed to support public health initiatives would save lives, suffering, money – ethical on all levels. It could enable population health promotion – see Health Canada’s model: – making further efforts to deliver population-specific interventions that clients are more likely to engage in and benefit from, and address health disparities by reducing information disparities

    i)More research is needed (always) and more money (always, always) 😛

    Phew! There are my 2cents in general – as far as nutrition labels go, they’re a great example of a consumer health information area that could use some work, including policies and guidelines of supporting organizations – standards orgs in particular would be ideal.

  4. Tammy

    A great response, Angela! You’re definitely the professional to ask! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts with me.

    I especially like the point about librarians being the first point of contact. So true!

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