Many food companies 'still serving up lies'

15 October 2012 - 02:25 By KATHARINE CHILD
Despite stricter laws, some food manufacturers' labels continue to try to dupe the consumer, say food consultants
Despite stricter laws, some food manufacturers' labels continue to try to dupe the consumer, say food consultants

Given the increasing obesity problem in this country, health experts are questioning whether new food-labelling legislation is as effective as it should be.

About 75% of women in South Africa above the age of 30 are overweight.

The food-labelling laws came into effect in March.

All food products must now include detailed information about their ingredients , list allergens and give storage instructions.

The goal is to ensure that consumers can make informed decisions about what they eat and that companies cannot make scientifically unproved claims about their products.

But dietician Jane Badham said there were major problems in enforcing the legislation.

"We are in a situation in which the Health Department makes good laws but, once again, where is the enforcement?" asked Badham.

Dietician Moira Byers agreed. "On the one hand, many manufacturers have complied, at great cost, and passed these costs on to the consumer.

"On the other hand, many products continue to make non-scientific claims that mislead and confuse consumers but the regulators and enforcers are nowhere to be found."

An example of a misleading claim is "95% fat-free".

Byers explained that, though a product might be described as containing 5% fat, the remainding 95% is not necessarily fat-free.

Many products get away with vague ingredients lists, unproved claims, such as "less than 2% fat", and outlawed words such as "natural", "wholesome" and "healthy".

"Enforcement by the Health Department is so poor that consumers remain unprotected." said Badham.

"Most of the big players have done a great job [of changing labels]", she said.

"But who will throw the first stone and complain about non-compliant labels?"

Food consultant Norah-Ann Hayes said that the new laws had resulted in port officials being much stricter about imported products.

She had "not heard of health officials taking products" off the shelves but said "retailers have become stricter in ensuring that products in their stores are correctly labelled".

"This has led to far more enforcement than would have been possible with only the Department of Health involved."

Health Department spokesman Joe Maila said consumers who wanted to complain about incorrect food labelling could speak to municipal environmental health officers.

But he admitted that there were "challenges related to the availability of sufficient resources to address compliance, monitoring and enforcement of legislation, including as it relates to the labelling regulations".

"Given the complexity of the laws, have the municipal health officers been [adequately] trained?" asked Badham.

She believes consumers are now in a worse position because some manufacturers comply with the new laws whereas others get away with misinformation.

Byers said she reported products in breach of the law to the municipal health department in Port Elizabeth but no action followed.

"As consultants, we have worked with labelling compliance for many years and still come up with questions and difficulties [regarding] the regulations," she said.

On labels

Be aware of what's in what you eat

THOUGH the Department of Health has been criticised by dieticians for not educating people about new food- labelling laws it is ultimately up to consumers to be aware of what they are eating.

Food consultant Norah-Ann Hayes said a study by the European Food Information Council found that only 25% of Europeans looked at nutritional information on packaging. She said the figure in South Africa was similar.

Hayes and other health experts urge people to read food labels.

The following is information that should appear on a food label:

  • If a product is marketed as a "chocolate chip cookie", the manufacturer must say what percentage of chocolate chips are in the biscuit. The percentage of the main ingredient must be given;

The presence of allergens (such as eggs, nuts, wheat), thought to be the biggest cause of food-related illness, must be clearly indicated. Generic descriptions such as preservatives, additives, vegetable oils are not sufficient. The specific preservatives, oils and ingredients used must be listed: for example, not "vegetable oil" but "palm-kernel oil".

  • Ingredients must be listed in descending order of quantity;
  • Nutritional claims such as low fat and low GI must to backed-up with evidence;
  • Misleading marketing words such as "healthy", "wholesome" and "natural" are banned;
  • Storage instructions must be given; and
  • Expiry dates and country of origin must be given.

On water

Diluting the facts

HOW does a drink that contains about 28g of sugar, about six teaspoonsful, get away with a healthy-sounding name like "vitamin water"?

This is a question many dieticians, who feel the name is misleading, are asking given the strictness of food labelling legislation.

Thanks to marketing and lawyers, the name of the popular colourful drink vitamin water is legal. It uses the trademark "Glaceau vitamin water" as a name but is registered as a "fruit-flavoured drink".

Regulations on bottled water insist that it has to be colourless and without added flavourants or sugars.

Vitamin water does not comply because it is not registered as a water.

Coca-Cola spokesman Zipporah Maubane says: "It is important to clarify that the trademark is Glaceau vitamin water. It is clear that our Glaceau vitamin water product is classified as a fruit-flavoured drink."

How fat-free is your food?

IF IT is claimed that a product is "low fat" it probably is, thanks to the food-labelling laws.

A product marked low fat may contain no more than 3% fat and a low-fat drink or other liquid may have only 1.5% fat - that is unless you are eating a dairy product which, because it is an agricultural product, is regulated by different laws.

Low-fat milk has 2.5% fat but low-fat cottage cheese has a minimum fat content of 24%.