Nutrition Warning Labels – Not Fit for Fat
Obesity and non-communicable diseases are real, complex problems – tied up with all manner of health, economic, personal, and cultural concerns related to individuals’ diets and lifestyles. So, predictably, a vastly oversimplified policy bandwagon has emerged, with a bad track record of demonizing individual products and nutrients rather than investing in the inter-related, evidence-based interventions necessary to help consumers achieve and maintain healthy diets and active lifestyles.
One element of this ill-advised policy prescription is a growing trend in front-of-pack nutrition warning labels. While there’s no evidence they have any positive impact on health, global recommendations for nutrition warning labels have followed an ever broader and more restrictive trajectory. WHO’s 2012 report on maternal, infant, and young child nutrition noted that providing information for consumers through nutritional labels can support other policy measures to improve diets. By 2016, the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity concluded far more prescriptively – calling for a standardized global nutrient profile system to inform “interpretive” front-of-pack labelling (that is, symbols or graphics that judge consumers’ foods for them, rather than providing the facts consumers need to inform their own food choices).
These warning labels describe certain processed food and beverages as dangerous because they are “high in” calories, sugar, sodium, and/or saturated fat, ignoring the fact that nutrition evidence shows there is no such thing as good and bad foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets. Slapped with warning labels, the scapegoated “bad” products are frequently banished to the wilderness – subject to unjustifiably broad marketing restrictions and even discriminatory taxes. While governments from Latin America to the Middle East to North America have moved to regulate against this background, none have presented any evidence this very costly experiment improves health, and they have brushed off the significant negative impacts on consumer choice, product innovation, and trade.
Is there any hope for a science-based, more coherent approach? Some are looking toward the Codex Alimentarius, the international food safety standard-setting body. Codex’s science-based international standards are recognized by the World Trade Organization, and WTO members commit to implement Codex standards or present scientific evidence for doing otherwise. In 2017, the Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL) began new work to develop guidance and promote harmonization of science-based front-of-pack labeling standards. CCFL has taken good initial steps to analyze the proliferation of front-of-pack labeling schemes and their scientific bases, but finalizing a Codex standard on front-of-pack labeling could take years. Meanwhile, existing and proposed front-of-pack nutrition warning labels will continue on their collision course with each other, with real consumer needs, and with international trade rules.
Most importantly, wasting time and money on bad policy is not making anyone thinner.