Food labeling

An overview of legislation and trends in food labelling

Significant variation in labelling regulations

Consumers are aware of dietary recommendations yet the number of people suffering from food related Non-Communicable Diseases is still increasing. Food labelling is supposed helping consumers to choose, but the format, number and types of nutrients that must be included on product labels vary from country to country1. While the information required in different countries about the ingredients contained in products is fairly homogeneous, concerning nutrients it is far from being the case, despite the best efforts of the Codex Alimentarius, which, in 1985, introduced the Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling, an international set of regulations which was revised in 2013. Variations in labelling regulations are not just a problem for the food industry and international trade: they result in both additional costs and public incomprehension.

Regulations on food labelling were introduced in USA in 1990, with the Nutrition Labelling and Education Act (NLEA). Since 1994, all pre-packed products must carry information on nutritional content and all fresh products must provide an information point. Information must be given concerning energy (as calorie content), calories from fat, total quantity of fat, sodium, cholesterol, fibre, carbohydrates, proteins, sugars, vitamins A and C, and minerals (e.g. iron and calcium). The information is based on an average daily diet of 2,000 calories. In China, food labelling is voluntary, but regulations are to be introduced shortly. Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, Malaysia, Israel and the Mercosur countries already have legislation concerning nutrition labelling. In EU, regulations introduced in 2011 require the agri-food industries to provide information about the energy content of their product and six specific nutrients (fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt), expressed as a quantity per 100g or 100ml of product by December 2016. Any other information is provided voluntarily. The format for providing the information still needs to be determined, as this can influence consumer’s choice. Based on an analysis of four EU countries, Feunekes et al. (2008) found that consumers make better choices when the information is on the front of the package rather than on the back2. In the USA, the FDA is developing a single ‘frontof-pack labelling’ system after studying 20 different methods. The system is said to encourage the industry to reformulate products and to help consumers understand the nutritional data whatever their level of education or cultural origins. In England, a standardised format has been developing since the introduction of the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) in 1988. There is also an increasing tendency to provide this kind of information on restaurant menus, particularly with respect to fast food: in many American states this is compulsory, while in England some 28 restaurant chains do so as part of the Department of Health’s voluntary Responsibility Deal programme3.

Consumer comprehension and reactions

According to a report by Nielsen (2012), irrespective of the region of the world they lived in, 5 to 8% of people questioned said that they don’t understand food labels. The terms low, free, high, rich, etc. need to be clarified. Although there is no doubt that it is worthwhile to provide consumers with the nutritional information they need to make informed choices, initiatives like these are based on the assumption that consumers actually want this kind of information. However, Nayga (2000) has shown that the consumers who actually read the labels are those who are already more conscious of such issues4, and highly educated women in particular5.

Faced with the complexity of trying to achieve international standardisation and the difficulty consumers have in understanding the labels, a number of simple, voluntary initiatives have been introduced, such as the USA’s ‘Nutrition Keys’ in 2011, the traffic light system used in England and the 5 colour code currently under discussion in France. As well as being easy for consumers to understand, they also help combat popular beliefs regarding the nutritional qualities of a given product. Nevertheless, voluntary initiatives like these that have not been included in European legislation are encountering a certain amount of resistance from producers, retailers and the food industry.

1. Kasapila W. et Shaarani S. (2015). Legislation, Impact and Trends in Nutrition
Labeling: A Global Overview. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition,
0:1–9 (2015) DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2012.710277
2. Feunekes G.I., Gortemakera I.A., Willems A.A., Lion R. and van den Kommer
R.L. (2008). Front-of-pack nutrition labeling: Testing effectiveness of different
nutrition labeling formats front-of-pack in four European countries. Appetite 50:
3. Dumanovsky T., Huang C.Y., Nonas C.A., Matte T.D., Bassett M.T. and Silver
L.D. (2011). Changes in energy content of lunchtime purchases from fast food
restaurants after introduction of calorie labeling: cross sectional customer
surveys, Br. Med. J. 343.
4. Nayga R.M. (2000). Nutrition knowledge, gender and food label use.
J.Consum. Aff. 34: 97–99.
5. Rejman K. et Kasperska A. (2011). Nutritional and health benefits as the
determinants of food choice in Polish consumers. Perspect. Public Health 131:

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