Several empirical studies indicate that the label is an instrument that reduces the asymmetric information problem between producers and consumers, as well as reduces the search costs for consumers to meet their desired choices.
Food labelling is a tool to promote and protect public health by providing accurate nutritional information so that consumers can make informed dietary choices, while others consider it as an instrument of marketing and product promotion.
The recently-published WHO-FAO (World Health Organisation-Food & Agriculture Organisation) report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases suggested that nutrition labels are an important means of facilitating choice of and access to nutrient-dense foods. The WHO global strategy on diet, physical activity and health endorsed in May 2004 by the World Health Assembly, states that providing accurate, standardised and comprehensible information on the content of food items is conducive to consumers making healthy choices.
According to 2005 Online Consumer Opinion Survey by A C Nielsen, most Indians (41 per cent) check nutritional labels when purchasing a product for the first time. Interestingly, however, consumers are most concerned with the nutritional information on food labels when buying food products for their children (Murali, 2006; Baisya, 2007).
The disclosure of information on food labels in India is primarily governed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, which has primarily focussed on the basic information of the product on the food labels and put less emphasis on health and nutritional information to be given on the food labels. However, recent amendments on packaging and labelling of food under part VII of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955, has mandated to disclose the health and nutritional claims on the food labels along with basic information. The new integrated Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, also aims at establishing a single reference point for all matters relating to food safety and standards across the country, by moving from multi-level, multi-departmental control to a single line of command. Chapter IV, paragraph 23 of the FSSA clearly states that no person shall manufacture, distribute, sell or expose for sale, or dispatch or deliver to any agent or broker for the purpose of sale any packaged food product which is not marked and labelled in the manner as may be specified by regulation. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has already been established to speed up the implementation of various rules and regulations in the Act. A study was conducted to determine and analyse the nutritional information on the packaging of major packaged food products of leading Indian & multinational brands being marketed in India. (Kumar et al, 2011) The analysis clearly indicated that the food processors disclose nutritional information on their food labels to facilitate the consumers in making informed choices as per their corporate strategy.
Labels and consumers
Because almost all food products have embedded credence attributes, it is difficult for consumers to evaluate the quality of food products themselves by looking at the food labels. In general, consumers do not understand the complex and technical information regarding health and nutrition that is given on such labels. However, this information definitely increases consumer confidence about food quality and safety.
Standardisation and uniformity of information on food labels might help consumers understand the information. But it will not be possible for consumers to assess quality and safety if a food product has been wrongly labelled. Because claims on food labels create expectations among consumers regarding the healthfulness of products, these claims need to be scientifically confirmed and enforced through proper regulatory mechanisms.
The way nutrition labels are formatted influences how effectively they can be used, interpreted and compared by consumers. Regulations are important because they dictate which nutrients are listed and the way that they are expressed quantitatively, along with other aspects of label design. The Codex has encouraged consistency between trading partners, but different countries have developed a diverse array of approaches to these requirements.
Current Codex guidelines recommend energy, fat, protein and carbohydrate be listed on nutrition labels. Dietary fibre should be added where a claim for dietary fibre is made, and sugars where a claim is made for carbohydrates. The guidelines allow, however, for national adaptation, stating, “Any other nutrient deemed by national legislation to be relevant for maintaining good nutritional status may be listed.” (Figure 1)
Overall, countries and areas can be characterised as having one of four types of regulatory environment:
● Category 1: Mandatory nutrition labelling on all prepackaged food products (to date, seven in the study, 10 as of 2006, and proposals for one further area as of 2010);
● Category 2: Voluntary nutrition labelling, which becomes mandatory on foods where a nutrition claim is made (most countries also mandate labelling on foods with special dietary uses) (27 in the study);
● Category 3: Voluntary nutrition labelling, which becomes mandatory on foods with special dietary uses (18 in the study);
● Category 4: No regulations on nutrition labelling (19 in the study).
Countries that require nutrition labelling only where a claim is made, or on foods with special dietary uses, may also require mandatory labels on specific foods. India falls under Category 3.
Thus nutrition labelling is effective in providing:
● The consumer with information about a food so that a wise choice of food can be made;
● A means for conveying information of the nutritional content of a food on the label;
● The use of sound nutrition principles in the formulation of foods which would benefit public health;
● The opportunity to include supplementary nutrition information on the label.
No misleading info
Nutrition labelling does not describe a product or present information about it which is in anyway false, misleading, deceptive or insignificant in any manner.
With regard to nutrition labelling, there appears to be a trend embracing the concept of, and need for, the declaration of nutritional information. It is widely believed that labelling can assist consumers in making food choices and that regulations are needed to ensure standardisation between labels.
In conclusion, nutrition labelling can be an effective means of helping consumers to make healthful food choices, although existing evidence concerning the effect of health claims on diet and public health is insufficient. Regulations can play a crucial role in enhancing the potential for nutrition labelling and health claims to promote health. The effectiveness of nutrition labelling and health claims in improving national dietary patterns relies largely on a motivated and educated public to make healthful choices. This approach has limitations. If there is to be significant change, action on nutrition labels and health claims need to be part of an integrated approach that tackles the increasing rates of diet-related non-communicable diseases at a population level, as well as targeting individuals.
1. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 2003 (WHO Technical Report Series, No. 916) (http://www.who.int/hpr/NPH/docs/who_fao_expert_report.pdf, accessed 5 January 2004).
2. Integrated prevention of non-communicable diseases. Draft global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 2003 (http://www.who.int/gb/EB_WHA/PDF/EB113/eeb11344a1.pdf; accessed 12 January 2004)
3. Codex Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling (CAC/GL 2_1985) (Rev.1_1993). Rome, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations / World Health Organisation, 1993.
(The author is senior manager, nutrition science, Enhance Proteins Limited)