Packaging labels fatting the world

Confusion! That seems to be the best marketing strategy for some food companies, to increase their profits and to make people sicker at the same time. Packaging labels regulation lacks the unique, unified and common message, code or symbiology, to assist the population to buy healthy products. It varies from one country to another and, as a result of this mess, consumers ignore it or simply go for the most striking packaging, not necessarily the healthiest one.

One of the most popular symbols is the traffic light, which simplifies food in 3 categories: green, amber and red. It was designed to give people an immediate idea as to whether something is healthy or not in terms of fat, sugar or salt. But… too good to be true.

Red means that there is a lot of fat, sugar and salt in the food. It should not be consumed regularly or in a large amount. Bad for health in the long run. Amber shows that it is neither high or low. Fine to consume most of the time. Good as part of a healthy diet. Green highlights items that do not contain much of those dangerous nutrients. It must be consumed regularly. Following “healthy” tips according to British Nutrition Foundation (2):

Traffic light 2

The table below shows how high, medium and low levels of fat, saturates, total sugars and salt in foods are classified for front of pack labels. These levels have been decided by the UK government. The “per portion” in red is used where portions are 250g or more.

Traffic light

This simplified system fails to tell you why some food comes red, amber or green. The traffic light code doesn’t distinguish between nutritional quality, more beneficial and less beneficial types of fat, sugar and salt. To understand how misleading this colour code can be, take for example 100ml of pineapple juice and 100ml of a fizzy pineapple drink . According to this traffic light system, both of them will go under the red colour due to their high sugar content. Pineapple juice provides natural sugar and some other vitamins and minerals, while fizzy drinks will provide just “empty calories”.

On top of that, this vague method completely ignores the grade of food processing. It seems that highly processed food, known as ultra-processed food, causes so called Western diseases: obesity, diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular disease… All highly process food shares the same thing: high sugar content, sweeteners, e-numbers, additives, refined oils and flour, preservatives… Overall, the ultra-processed food shouldn’t be named food. It’s an artificial product, most the time, with empty calories that mimics real food. The reality is miles away. So, in a way the unclear labels appear to be fatting the world.

In the context of confusion between natural food and ultra-processed food, Chile leads a revolutionary strategy to stop misleading the consumers. “Alto en” (high in) is a black octagonal war logo against ultra-processed products. It appears on the packaging for those aliments considered ultra-processed. It allows shoppers to spot the unhealthy products immediately, instead of the over-complex and different labels used in most countries that nobody understands.

Animal cartoons banned, before vs after

New look for a cereals in Chile with a black spot warning of an ultra-process product
Cereals 1
Chile has banned cartoon animals from breakfast box since 2016

Chile, war against ultra processed food

Chile has gone an extra mile in its war against ultra-processed products. So, since 2016 the cartoon animals have been banned from breakfast cereals and other junk food, disguised as healthy. This measure came up as a strategy to reduce obesity rates in young Chilean children between ages 5 to 9. Almost 19% of them are overweight or obese.

Chile has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. According to nationally representative data from 2018, it show that the prevalence of obesity is 23,7%, 24,6% and 24,4% in four, five and six year old children, respectively. In addition, around 26% in each age group is overweight, so half of the children between four and six years of age are either overweight or obese (1).

obesity map
Chile obesity almost reaches 19% in kids between ages 5 to 9

As a last note, I believe that health authorities should ban the use of false health messages on packets, such as “low sugar”, “no added sugar”, “with added vitamins”, “low in fat” or “natural ingredients”, unless companies can actually prove that the particular food is healthier. I think, we urgently need more transparency to better understand what we eat.



(2) Looking at labels – British Nutrition Foundation – Page #1

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