Childhood obesity-brave and bold action Contents

6 Labelling

94.Labelling was not included in the PHE evidence review, as its main focus was on fiscal measures, marketing and promotions.109 Alison Tedstone told us that the evidence suggested that while nutritional information and labelling was found useful and was acted on by those who are already engaged and “health seeking”, research shows that most people will not engage with that type of information. She added

I see it as a really important platform, but better and better food labels are unlikely to deliver the population-level changes that are needed to address the obesity crisis.110

95.Progress has been made in improving food and drink labelling in recent years, with some 75% of products now carrying voluntary traffic light labelling on the front of their packs.111 However, this is a voluntary system, and not all products use it. We heard calls for traffic light labelling to be made mandatory, although we were also told that this would require EU legislation.112

96.It was also suggested that labelling may support and stimulate reformulation, as it may prompt companies to reformulate products so they fall in a lower ‘traffic light’ category.113

97.We heard about the complexities of designing a labelling system that was consistent across products, but also meaningful to consumers. For example the traffic light system is based on 100 grams of a given product, but people do not always understand how much 100 grams is; using a “portion” instead of 100 grams raises problems around the definition of a portion.114 Different labelling options were discussed by our witnesses: the NuVal score used by some American retailers, and a new Health Star system being introduced in Australia.115 The most compelling of these options, in our view, was a simple graphic representation of the number of teaspoons of sugar shown to us by Jamie Oliver.

98.Jamie Oliver had applied mocked up teaspoon labels to 500ml bottles of full sugar soft drinks which are frequently sold as single portion sizes. These labels gave a stark visual cue that the bottles variously contained between 11 and 14 teaspoons of sugar (a teaspoon being defined as 4 grams). A bottle of drink containing 14 teaspoons of sugar provides 56 grams of sugar—nearly double the recommended daily amount of sugar for a teenager or an adult (which is 30 grams), and over double the recommended daily amount of sugar for a child aged between 7 and 10 years (which is 24 grams). This means that in order to meet new guidelines, a teenager or adult could only drink just over half of one of these bottles per day, and no other food or drink containing sugar at all that day.

99.While it is clear that this type of labelling would not be appropriate for all products, we think that for food and drink products being sold in a single serving size—including 500ml bottles of soft drinks—a simple graphic of this type showing the amount of sugar per whole pack in teaspoons would be a simple and easy way to encourage people to reduce their sugar consumption, in line with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s recommendations.

100.While labelling is an important platform for making informed food choices, even the best possible labelling is unlikely to deliver the population-level changes needed to tackle childhood obesity. Significant progress has been made by industry in introducing traffic light labelling for food and drink products on a voluntary basis, which we commend. However, expressing nutritional content in ways which are both consistent and easily understood by the public is a challenge. In our view, a labelling system showing teaspoons of sugar (where a teaspoon is defined as 4 grams) provides a clear and compelling visual representation of the amount of sugar in a particular product. A labelling system of this kind should be applied to a single-serving portions of foods and drinks with added sugar, to aid parents reducing their children’s sugar consumption to recommended levels, as some 500ml bottles of soft drinks contain nearly triple a young child’s recommended daily amount of sugar in a single bottle. The Government should offer manufacturers the chance to introduce this labelling voluntarily, but should be clear that it will be pursuing the introduction of labelling on a mandatory basis if companies do not adopt the voluntary scheme.

109 Public Health England, Sugar Reduction – Responding to the Challenge, June 2014, p5

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Prepared 27 November 2015