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August 28th, 2012

Don’t look to labels to curb carbs

To consumers, product labeling gives access to information and clarity of meaning when seeking information on ingredients contained in food products at the point of sale. It often highlights the important characteristics of a product, such as low fat, gluten free, low carb and useful advice such as not containing nuts (for those with allergies).

Labelling allows consumers to make informed purchasing decisions quickly. It can be critical for those who suffer from allergies and have special dietary requirements. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have time to inspect and compare ingredients when faced with a choice of 30 brands of yoghurt.  When it comes to global food labeling leadership, what really matters is what these regulations can do for the quality of life of consumers, domestic and abroad.

There is a valuable role in encouraging better information on packaging – and the energy-efficiency labelling on domestic appliances is a wonderful example of how this process can work brilliantly. An important factor in ownership, which may not be particularly salient at the time of purchase, is highlighted through a sensible, colour-coded scheme.

But there is a distinction here. I can’t think of anybody in the world who would want their tumble drier to be less energy-efficient. So I am fairly content with using colours from green to red in the way the current system displays its ratings, despite the fact that these colours are heavily charged with meaning. And, in any case, the information still exists for a single perverse individual to choose a really inefficient drier should he or she so wish.

So I find it intriguing as to why The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2008 updated their ‘Food and Drug Regulations’ that restrict manufacturers from specific nutrient content claims that can be made on foods. Carbohydrate claims, including “low carbohydrate”, “reduced carbohydrates”, “source of carbohydrates” are not included in the list under the regulations and are therefore not permitted.

Thanks to this regulatory framework, which was designed to make sense to regulators, industry pundits and consumers alike, it appears labels no longer serve their original intention to the busy consumer trawling the food aisles. Never mind the 61% of Canadians who have tried to cut back on carbohydrates to manage their weight. And this comes from a country that is leading the way in food labelling and setting gold standards for nutritional labelling. It prevents the makers of low-carb foods from highlighting this fact. This is about information restriction, not presentation.

Secondly, unlike the case with domestic appliances, there does exist a significant divergence of personal and expert opinion on whether the low-fat approach to dieting is right for everyone. Many experts – Dr John Briffa, Gary Taubes, and others – believe that for many people a diet low in carbohydrates is a good approach to weight-loss, an opinion borne out by a considerable body of experimental evidence. Therefore to prevent a useful dietary approach being easily adopted by many people who may find it valuable – in the short-term or permanently – is an active restriction on consumer choice.

At the same time, manufacturers of foods high in sugar will be allowed to continue plastering packaging with the claim that the contents are “fat-free”. This seems a remarkably uneven-handed piece of legislation, which could almost have been written by the North American Corn Industry and the manufacturers of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

And as luck would have it, The United States and the EU, two of Canada’s most important trading partners, are working on similar regulations. We are all for sensible regulation that promotes a good quality of life. So if it’s alright with you, we choose to keep our low carb labels.

Posted by: Rory Sutherland of The Common Sense Alliance

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1 Comment

  • Han Solo August 29, 2012 - 2:33 pm

    This is strictly the power of the (junk)food producers using their influence over government to do whatever they want, the public at large be damned.

    That is how we got to the stupid dietary suggestions and false mythology we have today that promotes carbohydrates to the point that 70% of everything in the grocery is made from corn or soybeans today.

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