Can Food Labels Make Britain Healthier?

UK Adults Live “Mostly Unhealthy” Lives

A recent survey says 90 percent of us have at least one unhealthy habit. Is better information the key to a healthier Britain?

Recent data from the NHS’s Health Survey for England suggests that Britain is a nation of people who just don’t take their own health seriously. And it is not just a matter of failing to get their five a day or not drinking enough water. The vast majority have habits that are putting their own lives at risk.

Given that this is often described as the information age, the news has led to debate over whether ensuring more foods and drinks have a custom made label giving health information is part of the solution.

What did the survey tell us?

The survey examined five unhealthy traits, which were excessive alcohol consumption, low intake of fruit and vegetables, obesity, smoking and failing to get enough exercise. It found that nine out of ten respondents had at least one of these traits, while a third owned up to two or more.

The most common unhealthy trait was a dietary one, with the majority admitting to unhealthy food choices. Perhaps the more worrying conclusion to come out of the survey, however, was the impact that unhealthy habits are having on the next generation.

For the first time in history, the study surveyed children as well as adults, and the results were an eye-opener. Children who have one or more obese parents were found to be three times more likely to become obese themselves. The study found that obesity affected around one in four children whose mother or father were obese, compared with one in eleven children whose parents were of a healthy weight.

Can labels really help?

There has been plenty of discussion around the “traffic light” type labels that were introduced in 2013 on a voluntary basis to give buyers a quick and easy way to assess the levels of fat, saturated fat, energy, sugar and salt on a “low, medium or high” basis with the numbers shown on a red, amber or green background.

Research that has taken place over the intervening years suggests that they do make a difference in guiding healthier food choices. The average supermarket shopper buys 61 items in the space of 26 minutes, which allows precious little time for examining nutritional labels in detail. A colour-coded indicator on the front of the packaging provides at-a-glance information as to whether the product can broadly be described as healthy or unhealthy.

The downside stems from the voluntary nature of this kind of labelling. As it stands, products that are inherently healthier have been the first to adopt it, but of course, the consumers who are looking at these kinds of products are not, by and large, the ones who would benefit from being educated. When a product is high in fat, salt and sugar, a manufacturer voluntarily advertising the information would be akin to a turkey voting for Christmas.

However, times are changing. Consumers are increasingly savvy and are starting to demand action. Kellogg’s, the UK’s best-known breakfast cereal brand, has been among the first to give in to the pressure and will be adding traffic light symbols to all its packaging from January 2019. It could be the first step towards more of us enjoying a healthier new year.