The nonsense of food labeling

I’ve always thought that the health claims made by food manufacturers are largely meaningless. For example, a food product can be advertised as ‘low in saturated fat’ or ‘cholesterol free’ but there is no good evidence that eating less of these particular foodstuffs has broad benefits for health. The ‘benefits’ of eating a food low in saturated fat/cholesterol are, I think, perceptual more than based in any form of fact. Also, even if dietary saturated fat and/or cholesterol had been proven to be detrimental to health, that does not necessarily make a food with low levels of these substances in automatically healthy: cow dung could be labeled ‘low in saturated fat’ and ‘cholesterol free’ but that does not make it good to eat.

I noticed a news report over the weekend (see here) which concerns proposed European legislation regarding the labeling of food. The story informs us that the UK consumer watchdog Which? warns that if proposed labeling laws are taken up, more than 90 per cent of food products would be able to make some nutrition claim or other. Essentially, according to Which?, the thresholds under which claims can be made about things such as fat and sugar content are just set too high. We are facing a situation, therefore, where we could see doughnuts and burgers being advertised and marketed as ‘low fat’.

This news report contains a quote from a spokesman for the Food Standards Agency telling us that, The FSA’s view is that we must ensure that health claims do not mislead consumers. Draft proposals are being discussed by all Member States at an EC level and we are pushing actively for legislation which puts consumers’ interests first.

I was a bit surprised by this, because the FSA’s track record does not suggest this organisation always puts consumers’ interests first. I believe the agency continues to mislead the public about what is good and not-so-good to eat. It warns, for instance, about the perils of saturated fat despite no good evidence this is the demon it’s made out to be. And it continues to try and convince us of the ‘value’ of starchy carbohydrates despite the fact that many of these tend to disrupt blood sugar and insulin levels in a way that predispose to conditions such as weight gain, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. I noticed the other day that Sam Montel, resident nutritionist on the FSA website, writes in response to a question on raisins that, Other healthy snacks include currant buns without icing, scones or teacakes.

Behind this, there is some evidence of the FSA having a closer than healthy relationship with the food industry. For example, here you can read about the clear conflicts of interests that members of the former FSA Advisory Committee on Research had. This committee, the role of which to advise the FSA on matters of science and research, included a full time employee of the food company Unilever. The chair of the committee also received funding from Unilever. As an addendum to this, I suppose it’s worth pointing out that Dame Deirdre Hutton, chair of the FSA no less, owns shares in Unilever as declared here.

Such conflicts of interest would not be so troublesome if the FSA appeared to be giving us honest, impartial, evidence-based advice about what we should eat. But, in my view, they have failed miserably here.

The FSA, some of you will know, also has some history of its own in the food labelling arena. A while back it introduced its ‘traffic light’ labelling scheme, which rated foods as green, amber or red on account of their sugar, salt, saturated fat and overall fat content. I have pointed out some of the misleading aspects of this scheme here. The FSA’s traffic light scheme enables oven chips to get four green lights, and therefore an implied stamp of approval from our Government as something good to eat. The FSA is right to be wary of the proposed European food labeling laws, but I reckon it needs to sharpen up its own act in the area too.

9 Responses to The nonsense of food labeling

  1. Anna Salvesen 28 April 2009 at 2:05 am #

    I avoid food with packaging and labels, period. No packaging, no labels, no health claims.

    What our governments are doing do to us in the name of health is really disturbing…

  2. Peter D 28 April 2009 at 8:13 am #


    the truly healthy food comes without packaging and does not require nutrition labelling.

  3. CJP 28 April 2009 at 9:00 am #

    Excellent blog Dr Briffa, but please note that the content of external sites linked to may change in time and so may undermine the point you make now.
    Take, for example, Deidre Huttons’ biog on the Food Standards Agency <> which I first viewed on 10/02/2009. I cannot be certain, but I have an inclination to think that the page content may have changed slightly since then. (Just MHO).
    So for the record here is some of the pertinent content as of 28/04/2009 :-
    “Personal interests

    Consultancies and/or direct employment
    HM Treasury, non-executive member
    Thomas Hutton (son), research chemist, Tate & Lyle plc
    Nicholas Hutton (son), researcher for Jo Swinson, MP

    Fee-paid work

    Shares in GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, Eclectica Agricultural and Intercontinental Hotels to a value of approximately £25,000

    Close family members hold shares in GlaxoSmithKline, ICI, Tesco, Scottish & Newcastle, Unilever, Marks & Spencer and Marston’s to a value of approximately £92,426

    Clubs and other organisations
    Forum UK, a club for senior women in UK, some of whom are in the food and related industries

    Other personal interests

    Elsewhere on the web at <> is another short biog on Dame Hutton :-


    Dame Deirdre Hutton was appointed Chair of the Food Standards Agency in 2005. She has served on a number of public bodies and has considerable experience of corporate governance, risk-based regulation and consumer policy. She was a Board member, including Deputy Chair, of the Financial Services Authority between 1997 and 2007. For five years, she was Chair of the National Consumer Council, having formerly chaired the Scottish Consumer Council. Prior to her appointment at the Food Standards Agency, she had been a member of the Better Regulation Task Force since 1999.”
    That’s quite some time as Deputy Chair of the Financial Services Authority in the period leading up to meltdown?

    Lets be clear, the purpose of this post is not to personally attack any individual but to illustrate and underscore the machinations of government, industry and commerce, and agencies of government as regulators as has Dr John in this blog. One important point being made is to ‘save pages offline’ for future reference.

    Check the listings for yourselves, tonights’ Panorama proposes to illustrate the tendency of the herd mentality to vilify well-intentioned ‘whistle blowers’ within the NHS?

    I’m off to ‘google’ ‘Better Regulation Task Force’. …

  4. Trinkwasser 29 April 2009 at 6:06 pm #

    The ones that really bug me are the labels listing fats in minute detail, and “sugars” but NOT carbs.

    Or worse than that the ones which list an RDA for the various nutrients but NOT carbs. Or list something like 250 g/day

    Don’t Eat Food With Small Print . . .

  5. Nancy 1 May 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    The FDA in the United States is no better. It is sad that the government organizations that were formed to help the public lead healthier lives have “sold their souls to the devil,” which certainly does nothing for the people. It just fills the pockets of some people and some companies. The question is, what to do? I write to my Senators regularly, feeling that I have to do my part or nothing will ever change. I think these issues have to impact more people in a direct way before anything will change. That seems to be the nature of most people — they do not feel passionate about something and react until it affects them directly. If more people would speak up and tell their government that they want something better, nothing will change. So, I urge everyone — in the UK and the US — to write letters! Let those for whom you voted to represent you know how you feel about the current food labeling laws (and other issues affecting your health) and, then, maybe things will improve! We have a show in the US called 360 Anderson Cooper — he has a segment called “Keeping them Honest” — well, we need to do the same with our elected representatives. Let’s do our part to keep them honest!

  6. Trinkwasser 2 May 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Last night I watched two BBC programmes which were broadcast recently. One was about the history of the wheat harvest (so sue me, I like big machines!) the other was about the machinations of the Food Industry. Scary stuff and well worth watching when they are repeated (soon). There’s a LOT of Big Money in the background.

  7. mezzo 2 May 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    You think this is new? Go and read or re-read Dorothy Sayers “Murder Must Advertise” set in pre-WW-II-London and read about advertising rules in those days. An excellent, amusing read and an eye-opener.

    Another rule: don’t eat anything with things in it that you can’t pronounce

  8. Cristina 2 May 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    Thank you Dr. Briffa for this blog!
    It not only explains de fraud in the food industry, it also points out some of the persons that are to blame. This is exactly what we need more of and I find you very brave for doing this as I know the risk you take.
    I would love to see more of this clarifying blogs and why not on the food that many think (including your readers) is healthy ; the no-label-food.
    It needs to be explained how an apple or grape is produced today and that they have very little in common with the fruit produced 200 years ago. Why has micro nutrients gone down severely, why they are sprayed with anti-hormones to make them seedless, GM, hybrid seeds, pesticides, etc.
    THANKS 🙂


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