Globally, the role of food labels in reducing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which account for 71% of deaths, remains a bone of contention. A particular area of disagreement is the use of health claims on food labels, especially in a developing country like South Africa where regulations don't allow it.
“It seems that the jury is still out on whether the use of health claims on food labels would help South African consumers buy healthier products. We found that there is a complex mix of challenges which raise concerns about whether the inclusion of health claims is feasible and whether this would assist consumers to make better food choices," says Melvi Todd, a doctoral student in the Department of Food Science at Stellenbosch University (SU). Todd is one of four researchers who conducted a study on whether health claims on food labels would help or hinder South African consumers in making better food choices. Her co-authors were Timothy Guetterman (University of Michigan), Gunnar Sigge (SU) and Elizabeth Joubert (Agricultural Research Council Infruitec-Nietvoorbij). They interviewed diverse stakeholders, including consumers and professionals from the food industry and other occupations, who shared their views about the use of health claims on food labels to communicate health information in the country.
The findings of their study were published recently in the journal Appetite.
The researchers say there are persistent barriers to the use of labels, such as challenges related to literacy and legibility.
“We found that the inclusion of health claims on food labels would be hampered by factors such as literacy (the ability of the consumer to read and write); legibility (factors enabling readability such as physical size and definition of the information on the food label); language; physical presence of a food label on a food product; and socio-economic position (the combination of an individual's education, income and occupation).
“Participants in our study indicated that their use of nutrition and health claim information on food labels would depend on the amount time they had, difficulty in processing information due to factors such as fatigue, hunger, or an increasing number of alternatives (sometimes referred to as cognitive depletion), or lacking motivation and knowledge."
According to researchers, the inclusion of health claims is also challenging because many South Africans are forced to buy their food in informal markets where products usually don't have labels with nutritional information for the consumer.
“One example of a practice in the informal market is portioning 'formal' products into small plastic bags, for the sake of affordability. Such small 'portioned' bags display none of the labelling attributed to the parent product.
“Poor South Africans often have to buy these small portions and cannot afford to be selective about their food. Consequently, they are unlikely to use food labels to inform their food choice, irrespective of additional health claims.
“In addition, there are no African languages on food labels which means that consumers who are not English speakers might not even understand what is on the labels. Visual labels from which deductions can be made (e.g. colour and shape; avoiding numeric-based solutions) may help to convey the relevant messages to these consumers."
The researchers point out that stakeholder complexities, including concerns about conflicting interests, siloed responsibility and enforcement challenges, make navigating the food labelling landscape perplexing.
“Attempts to make positive progress on what will constitute an effective means of communication of health information on food labels appears to be hindered by a lack of trust that exists between some of the critical role players and further research will be required to reach a consensus in this regard."
They say there's a need to address concerns about whether health claims create inequality regarding labelled versus unlabelled foods; smaller versus large food manufacturers; and access to health information by consumers.
“South Africa is not yet ready to implement health claims because of gaps in terms of both enforcement and evaluation of claims. Food labelling interventions might also exclude the poor and therefore we must remain realistic about the role they will play in helping people buy healthier products and reducing NDCs."
The researchers call for closer cooperation between the food industry and policy-makers to ensure the healthy choice is the easy choice – irrespective of whether the consumer can read a particular label or not.
- Source: Todd, M; Guetterman, T; Sigge, G & Joubert, E 2021. Multi-stakeholder perspectives on food labelling and health claims: Qualitative insights from South Africa. Appetite 167: doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105606