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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 16:14 GMT
Food labelling 'must be clearer'
Do we really know what we are eating?
Pressure is growing for clearer labelling and greater honesty about the ingredients in food and drink.

The head of the new European Food Safety Authority has called for a ban on claims that foods high in salt, sugar and fat are healthy.

Geoffrey Podger says enriching them with vitamins is not enough to justify the claims.

And the consumer magazine Which? has called for clearer labelling of additives.

In an interview for the BBC, Mr Podger said he wanted to put a stop to the practice of adding supplements such as vitamins to foods high in fat or sugar, so they can be marketed as healthy.

European-wide regulations on labelling are currently being planned - which will draw on scientific advice from Mr Podger's authority.

He told the BBC: "We should recognise there are foods that are naughty but nice.

"No harm in eating them, but to start making health claims because you have added ingredients to them will just confuse the situation, and make it more difficult for all of us to balance our diets."

Additive labelling

Which? says the current system of labelling additives is so complex it confuses people who want to avoid them in their diet.

Some food labels "read more like a chemistry experiment than something you would want to eat", it said.

Additives are used for colour, flavour and texture, or to preserve food.

Their use must be approved by an expert panel which also sets safe intake levels.

But Which? said that despite safety checks, there was still concern that some additives were linked to health problems.

For instance, research has indicated that certain additives may be linked to behavioural problems in children.

The magazine accepts that additives are needed to provide safe, convenient food all year round.

But it says their use - particularly as a colouring - is probably not justified in all cases.

It adds: "We'd like to see one clear labelling system for additives to make it easier to avoid additives and to compare what's in different foods."

Food industry response

Martin Paterson, of the Food and Drink Federation, stressed that food safety was the number priority for the industry.

He said: "The use of additives is subject to strict safety controls, and consumers' intake of additives is closely monitored.

"A recent European Commission report indicated that consumption of all types of additives was within the strict safety limits set by the legislation, for both adults and children."

He said manufacturers often had to convey a lot of information to consumers on a very small label.

"Additive labelling is governed by the EU Labelling Directive.

"However, UK manufacturers are always looking at the best way to provide product information within these constraints.

"Further information is often provided via leaflets, customer care-lines and websites."

Your comments

Origins of food is nearly equally important as ingredients. Whilst this may be not be practical for processed food it should not be a problem for fruit, veg and meat. Danish pork packed in the UK should be clearly labelled as Danish rather than British and chicken from Thailand should be labelled as such regardless of where it is prepared or packed.
John Middleditch, Beaconsfield, UK

Instead of using chemical names on the list of ingredients, why not use the ordinary everyday names so that the man in the street could understand exactly what it is he /she is eating.
Josephine Kay, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire

Supermarkets often have packs in the fresh meat chiller which, if you look carefully, have a list of ingredients. The packs look like fresh meat (pork or turkey usually) but are full of water and chemicals. Often there is only 80% meat. The ingredients list is often in very small writing or on the back or side of the packet and the shoppers would be forgiven for not knowing that the pack doesn't contain fresh meat like all the others in the chiller. I think this is a big con and the supermarkets should be required to put "Processed - Not Fresh" in big letters on the front of the packaging. This might stop people being misled.
Simon Jones, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Labels need to be user friendly
Erin, Brussels, Belgium
Labels need to be user friendly. Giving the nutritional information for foods by 100g is insufficient for consumers; one requires a calculator, pen and paper to ascertain the levels of calories, nutrients, and other ingredients they are actually consuming. If you give people the ability to empower themselves they will have the tools to take that next step towards more healthful living.
Erin, Brussels, Belgium

I work for the Co-op and am very proud of the fact that we do clearly label the ingredients in our products - even breaking some laws in order to do so because we feel everyone should know what they are eating! We were the first to label how much salt is in a product, to use LoSalt as an alternative, to label the ingredients in our wine and to put dental advice on sweets amongst many many others. Other retailers could take a leaf out of our book!
Madeline Edgar, Manchester, UK

Ban the use of phrases like "85% Fat free". This is deliberately trying to mislead people by sounding healthier. "15% fat" should be the only type of wording allowed. Also, anything sold as "light" or "low fat" should have to have half or less of the fat or calories of the standard product. Some things sold as "low fat" have more than 80% of the fat of the standard product.
Andy Eastham, Swindon, England

MSG is one of the most commonly used food additives, but too much of it makes you feel anxious and uneasy or keeps you awake at night in a sweat. The problem is that most people would find MSG very hard to avoid because it is hard to recognise on food labels from its usual code E621. MSG is a flavour enhancer used in most brands of stock cubes, in many sauces, and is often added to junk food or take-away food. MSG really should be labelled much more prominently on the front of food labels to say "CONTAINS MSG", and then we could choose to avoid it!
Peter Cockerill, Leeds U.K.

I also wish that they would put a little history of where the food came from on the counters at the supermarket
Vanessa Megaw, United States
I wish that the labelling system in the United States was as honest as yours. We don't even know if our food is genetically engineered or not. I also wish that they would put a little history of where the food came from on the counters at the supermarket, so we can know if the food was traded fairly and with respect to the planet. I think it would be a really good way for people trying to create wholesome foods to create more customers.
Vanessa Megaw, United States

I would like to see gluten labelled more clearly. It is frequently hidden in terms like malt extract (a flavouring) and hydrolysed vegetable protein (can be derived from wheat). The current law for labelling gluten content allows products with a small amount of gluten to be labelled gluten free.
Barbara, London, UK

Why should it be made clearer? Do people not realise that unnatural additives are bad for them? If people made their food from separate ingredients they could avoid ALL artificial additives. Have you ever seen phenylaninlene on someone's shopping list?
David Mawer, Wellingborough, UK

Foods need to be labelled very clearly. It is wrong to label foods as 'healthy' or 'low-fat' when they are high in sugar, salt and additives. Clearly, people are being misled by some food labelling.
Eleanor Bryant, Leeds, UK

It's about time they started putting ingredients on wine bottles as standard. It really isn't *just* grape juice in most of them!
Marco Cesio, Surrey, UK

I would like the labelling to show the amount per portion of the food
Tryphena Penswick, Preston, Lancashire, UK
I would like to see clearer labelling of fat, sugar and salt content in our food. We are constantly told that we should keep fat, sugar and salt intake to a minimum yet food labelling is often not very clear and even when they are listed in the ingredients the amounts are not always given. I would like the labelling to show the amount per portion of the food.
Tryphena Penswick, Preston, Lancashire, UK

Concerning additives in foods. One has got to purchase a specialist book on additives in order to understand them. It shouldn't be like that. Everything should be made clear and easily understood on the product purchased.
Robert, Birmingham

E numbers are all very well, but how many of us know the list backwards? Supermarkets should be required to display a list of these numbers, and any other additives not on the list, stating what they are and what symptoms high doses might cause. The country (or countries) of origin as well as manufacture should also be clearly displayed. I, for one, try to avoid products from the USA because of their attitude to the planet.
Alan Crawford, Worcester UK

The BBC's Vicki Young
"We're all eating too much food that is high in fat, salt and sugar"

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25 Oct 02  |  Health
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