Advocacy group wants food packaging to have tobacco-style warning labels

25 August 2020 - 11:58 By Suthentira Govender
The Healthy Living Alliance wants food packaging to contain warning labels to allow consumers to make better food choices.
The Healthy Living Alliance wants food packaging to contain warning labels to allow consumers to make better food choices.

Advocacy group Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) is ramping up its #whatsinmyfood campaign, reiterating a call to the government for bold warning labels on food packaging.

The group successfully campaigned for the sugary drinks tax that the government introduced in April 2018 to discourage consumers from buying and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks in an attempt to decrease obesity-related illnesses.

“We want to see more being done to give clear information and warn South Africans about the dangers of unhealthy food so they can make better choices about what they eat and how to stay healthy, especially now that we are grappling with the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mary-Jane Matsolo, Heala spokesperson.

Heala wants food and drinks to have clear warning labels similar to the warnings on cigarettes.

“The #whatsinmyfood campaign highlights the high quantities of salt, fat or sugar in some common foods which can have serious health consequences. These ingredients of concern are currently difficult to identify on our food packaging.

“Most consumers spend less than 10 seconds selecting a food item which is not enough time for them to learn how much added salt, sugar and saturated fat is in their food.

“It’s no secret the Covid-19 is a killer ... However, in a sense, the extra sugar, extra salt and extra saturated fat added to many processed foods have been part of the first wave of attack against our immune systems — by causing underlying diet related non-communicable diseases,” said Matsolo.

A study published by Lancet Laboratories in 2017 showed that 1.6 million SA children were overweight and that diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes and some cancers were among the top 10 causes of death in the country.

“On April 10 this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released new obesity figures. It found that unhealthy diets cause the most deaths and disability in the world, with about 2.8 million people who die as result of being overweight or obese.

“SA has the highest obesity rate among the sub-Saharan African countries that the WHO collects data for. Simple front-of-pack nutrition labels are part of the policies recommended by the WHO to address the growing global burden of diet-related non-communicable disease.

“Worldwide, food labels have proven problematic because they don't clearly reveal the  exact amount of ingredients like sugar, salt and fat in processed food to boost sales.

“We understand that Covid-19 has changed national priorities, however we at Heala cannot slow down in the endeavour to educate the public, keep food companies honest and push government to implement new labelling regulations as soon as possible.

“It is time to intensify our advocacy efforts,” said Matsolo.