Opaque labels foster global obesity crisis

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More and more questions are springing up about the choices marketed to us as healthy food and drink options, and artificial sweeteners are the latest flashpoint, as a study published this month by University of Minnesota researchers linked them to increased body fat.

The finding is especially worrying given that, for years, these kinds of products have been sold to consumers as a healthier option, a notion reinforced by labelling using terms like “diet”, “sugar-free” or “light”. Customers are incredibly sensitive to labelling decisions–one survey, for example, indicated that some 72% of American consumers are influenced by product packaging when browsing supermarket shelves. Now, there is increasing evidence that despite believing they are opting for healthier options, like sugar-free soda, they may actually be putting themselves at risk for a plethora of health issues. 

The University of Minnesota study comes hot on the heels of fresh WHO guidelines, released in May, that advised weight-conscious consumers against artificial sweeteners. Following a wide-ranging review of long-term observational studies, the WHO concluded that long-term use of artificial sweeteners could have adverse health effects, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, leading the global health body to recommend avoiding non-sugar sweeteners like aspartame or stevia to lose weight or prevent diet-related diseases.

Despite the new guidelines, consumers will undoubtedly continue believing that drinks slapped with labels like “light”, “low sugar”, or “no added sugar” are a healthier bet. As guidelines and labels keep changing and expert groups are increasingly singling out some food labels as misleading, how is the everyday consumer expected to make healthier choices?  `

Obesity presents a formidable challenge for Europe

Consumers should obviously be encouraged by any means necessary to make healthier choices, given how deeply concerning the obesity prognosis is for future generations. Earlier this year, for example, the WHO released a report on obesity levels in Europe, showing that roughly one in three primary school-aged children is living with obesity or is overweight–a figure that is only set to rise further.

Between 2020 and 2035, a shocking 61% increase in the number of European boys living with obesity is predicted–and a 75% increase in the number of girls living with obesity. The financial impact is equally staggering–issues involving being overweight and obesity across all age groups are projected to cost the WHO European Region $800 billion annually by 2035. 

Changes in diet are a major part of the problem–in many parts of Europe, traditional diets rich in fruits and vegetables have largely disappeared, displaced by sweets and junk food. There is clear evidence that most consumers want to reverse this trend–one survey, for example, found that 71% of European consumers try to select the healthier option when they have the chance.

Oversimplified labels not helping consumers identify the healthy option

Doing so, however, requires having access to reliable information about what options are more nutritious. Unfortunately, some leading initiatives aimed at providing this essential information are falling well short of the mark. The EU, for example, is trying to implement harmonised, simplified front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labels–yet one of the leading candidates, Nutri-Score, may actually muddle the waters more for consumers, and was even labelled “misleading” by the Italian competition authority. 

Nutri-Score is a labelling system whose algorithm purports to classify foods from supposedly healthiest to least healthy, slapping them with colour-coded letter grades, A-E, with a green A being the highest possible rank. The labels are seemingly easy to read, yet there has been sustained criticism around the algorithm’s seeming lack of logic and scientific reasoning–it is currently in its third iteration and not much has improved. 

While oversimplified labels like Nutri-Score have done little to help the average consumer ferret out nutritious foodstuffs, they have helped hand major corporations a new marketing tool. Nestlé, for example, has spent years reformulating its products to get good scores under Nutri-Score’s flawed algorithm, with the result that cereals of questionable nutritional value–like Chocapic–have enjoyed green A grades despite a heavy sugar component. 

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Misleading marketing claims add to the problem

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nestlé has used the elevated Nutri-Scores that its reformulated products have received extensively in its marketing campaigns–nor is the FOP label the only controversial marketing technique the company has relied on. Take the Swiss company’s recently-released KitKat breakfast cereals. The candy-flavoured cereal faced tremendous backlash from consumer watchdog groups, as the company marketed the breakfast cereal as nutritious, apparently citing its Nutri-Score label of C as a sort of testament of its healthfulness despite the fact that a bowl of the cereal could have more than a child’s entire daily sugar allowance. The claim of “nutritious” has been removed from the Nestle website; however, the Nutri-Score remains. 

Naturally, Nestle is far from the only company accused of branding food and drink with spurious claims of healthfulness. Welch’s Mixed Fruit Snacks boast on the package that “fruit is our first ingredient”, yet the product is derived from pureed fruit, a process which strips away most of fruit’s health value–leading one expert to pronounce “this is nothing but a candy, and should be advertised as such”. The Coca-Cola company, meanwhile, is facing a class action lawsuit over labelling its Minute Maid juice boxes as “good for you” and “part of a healthy, balanced diet” when they contain extremely high levels of sugar.

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