Fight Obesity With Frank Food Labels

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No country, rich or poor, is immune to the rapid rise in overweight and obesity among both adults and children. But a few are finding they can push back against the dangerous trend by making sure their citizens get clear information about the groceries they buy.

The foods people choose to eat make a difference in how much weight they gain — which, in turn, can influence long-term health outcomes. And their choices are influenced by the so-called food environments in which groceries are sold. People are easily enticed by the cheerful packaging of overly processed foods high in sugar, salt or fat. But by the same token, they can be steered toward healthier choices by government-mandated labels that clearly tell them what dangers might lurk inside the package.

To be effective, such labels need to be prominent and instantly readable. In the U.S., nutrition-content labels are required on packaged foods, but only on the back. And it requires some degree of nutritional literacy to comprehend the grams and percentages of recommended daily amounts they lay out.

Much more helpful are the prominent black-and-white stop signs that Chile has recently mandated for the front sides of packaged foods that contain large amounts of calories, sugar, salt or fat. Chile also restricts the advertising and sale of such products at schools and on TV.

France is the first country in the EU to require front-of-package labels, and not just for unhealthy foods. It uses color-coded labels that signify five levels of nutritional quality, ranging from Green (grade A) to red (grade E).

Just as such labels guide consumer choices, they also give food makers incentive to formulate more healthful products. There’s preliminary evidence to indicate that Ecuador’s front-of-pack traffic-light labels, for instance, have led to such change. More than 20 percent of large and medium-sized food companies in Ecuador have reported reformulating at least one product that was given a red light.

Even Australia’s voluntary labeling program, in which foods are assigned one to five stars to indicate their relative nutritional value, has nudged some food and beverage companies to improve their offerings.

Studies have verified that color-coded labels are more effective than plain-text labels in steering consumers toward wholesome foods. And well-designed labels affect all shoppers, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, highly educated or not, other research shows.

Still needed are more comprehensive measurements of the degree to which labeling systems influence food-industry behavior, and to what extent they lead to an improvement in overall public health. But the evidence already suggests that every country should consider requiring clear front-of-package food labels. Among the many already headed down this path are Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Singapore, Thailand, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

This is not a heavy-handed move, an overstepping of governmental authority. It’s a worthwhile effort to give consumers the information they need to make dietary choices to protect their health. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.