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Nutritional indications, how labels change around the world

In the last decades, the World Health Organisation repeatedly invited countries all over the world to implement regulatory policies and sanctions to reduce the incidence of obesity and other metabolic diseases associated to unhealthy diet. The measures adopted include sale and advertising restrictions for specific foods and drinks, increased taxation, review of formulas.

However, the main element to control the intake of fats, sugars and calories remains the labelling of these foods, and the several requirements it should comply with in many countries. The presence of nutrition labelling systems informing on the nutrition features of a concerned food is the key to generate consumers’ awareness of what they eat and how it can affect their health.

Let’s see what this is about.

In general, we can start saying that, at least for now, there is no system universally implemented to circulate this type of information. The WHO has however drafted a set of recommendations that States can use as a starting point to create their own system: indicating all nutrients considered as critical, such as trans fat acids, saturated fats, sodium, and sugars; using symbols, colours and numbers to make consumers’ understanding easier; introducing the obligation of a nutritional declaration on all prepacked foods.

There are different systems giving priority to different aspects of nutritional information. In some cases, for instance, consumers are warned against the excessive content of critical nutrients for our body: this system is said informative. In other cases, consumers are given score scales allowing them to compare the food they choose with other similar products on the market: this system is said interpretative.

Trends varies, then, depending on the geographic area with differences that are quite significant. In most countries, the inclusion of nutrition labelling systems is still voluntary. The nutrients to be reported also vary: in some cases, it is preferred to highlight the quantity of the potentially harmful nutrients, in other cases the stress is on the nutrients that are most beneficial for our health. The thresholds allowed per serving or for 100 g change, and many systems are simply interpretative, only based on symbols, with no quantities indicated.

Nutriscore and NutrInform Battery

The latter is a much discussed issue, strongly opposed by food manufacturers. In fact, the inclusion of a score system (such a traffic light or the so called “nutriscore” adopted in some European countries) or approval logos, with standard wording, is considered by manufacturers as discriminating, as it does not allow consumers to evaluate the elements in the food, creating – according to some critics – unbalanced scenarios.

This system is widely used in Asia, while Australia and New Zealand use a score from 1 to 5 stars. Latin America is gradually moving from an informative to an interpretative system.
In the European Union, where the system is voluntary, situations are very different. Denmark and Sweden, for instance, were the first to implement the Nordic Keyhole – a logo indicating that the food contains less sugar and salt, and more fibres and wholegrains – then followed by other world countries such as Norway, Island, Lithuania, and Macedonia. In Great Britain, before its exit from the EU, the symbol of a traffic light combining colours and reference intake rates was adopted. France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Luxembourg adopted or will adopt the above mentioned Nutriscore. On the other hand, Italy sponsored a “battery” system indicating the quantity of energy and nutrients per serving as a percentage of the daily recommended intake.

Regardless the applied system, the commitment to provide information to consumers for a healthy and balanced nutrition is still strong. This can be achieved promoting a correct reading of food labelling.

Writteb by: Maria Pia Felici

Foto di Alexas_Fotos da Pixabay