Health Canada recently announced that manufacturers will need to put front-of label warnings on packaged foods that meet or exceed a certain percentage of daily maximum recommended amounts of salt fat or sodium. Manufacturers have until January 2026 to begin labelling, but we could see the changes sooner.
The percentages vary depending on the kind of food. The labels don’t tell you how high any of the ingredients are. Is it over 15% for general packaged food? 10% for things like cookies, pickles and breakfast cereals? Or 30% for things like frozen lasagne or pizza?
Nicole and I had different responses to the news. My mind went immediately to questioning why a new label is needed, and whether people would, or could change behaviour.
Isn’t the information on the back label sufficient? It is certainly more comprehensive. A 2019 meta-analysis of 60 food label intervention studies shows that simple labels seem to be more effective, so maybe that’s why the new labels; however, the evidence wasn’t super strong.
The study also noted that many barriers exist to consumers responses to labeling, such as limited awareness, attention, understanding, attitude, acceptance, usage, or other challenges such as price, taste, and culture. That’s a fancy way of saying there are societal/structural issues including a lack of nutritional education at home/school, food deserts, and the need for high calorie options when on limited budgets (Boost is my go-to for people living on the streets).
The study did indicate that food labeling effectively reduces consumer intakes of total energy and total fat while increasing intake of vegetables (but not by very much, and there was little study on long-term behavioural changes). It had little or no effect on behaviour around did not significantly alter intakes of carbohydrate, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, or energy consumed.
However, food labeling influences industry responses related to product contents of sodium and artificial trans fat. I’ll take that small win. Sodium and trans fats are the two things I care about most when I look at labels. More studies are needed to assess the effects of labeling on other dietary targets, disease risk factors, and clinical endpoints.
Bottom line for me, though, is that I look at only some of the things on a label when comparing products when I intend to buy. Nothing on the label will make me choose not to purchase it (I do have the privilege of cooking many things from scratch), If I have decided I want chips, I won’t look at the label at all. It’s the same with calorie info on a restaurant menu: I may choose a salad with my burger instead of fries occasionally, but that’s as far as it goes.
Nicole’s says her response was based more on emotion, but I think it is also super valid:
My main concern is this: As someone who has monitored what I eat since about 11, even though I feel I do it in a better way these days, if someone like me goes to have a bag of sour kids, by the time I have that bag in my hands I gave weighed all the pros and cons, I know it’s a bag of sugar and I don’t need to be reminded or made to feel guilty about buying it.
Also, in my disordered eating days, when I would binge, those labels wouldn’t have prevented that binge. It would have just added to my feelings of self-hatred, which I actually think was part of my intention with the binging.
Bottom line? The labels don’t seem to be helpful for consumers, and in some cases may be harmful. They do have more of an effect on manufacturers, who feel pressure to reformulate their products to reduce the negative perception of their products when information about salt, sugars and fats (especially trans fats) is out there for all to see.
Maybe there is a better way to get manufacturers to change behaviour? And maybe there is a way to improve education about, and access to, better food options? I can dream…