Changes to food labelling considered in fight against obesity

Amanda Lyons

20/08/2019 3:17:31 PM

But is it enough in an obesogenic environment?

Food labelling.
The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation is considering changes to food labelling to help improve public health.

‘Our food environment is a huge influence on what people eat, and how easy it is to get access to healthy food has a big impact on people’s overall health status.’
That is Dr Elizabeth Sturgiss, a GP with a special interest in obesity management, discussing the benefits of possible changes to food labelling.
The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (the Forum) met last week to discuss matters of food regulation, including the results of the Health Star Rating review and how best to support public health objectives to reduce overweight and obesity.
These issues have a heightened significance for advocates of public health, as both countries experience high rates of overweight and obesity and accompanying increases in rates of chronic disease.
‘In terms of public and population health, chronic disease is a real issue for the Australian community, and most of the common chronic conditions are impacted in some way by people’s nutrition,’ Dr Sturgiss told newsGP.
Some of the most significant food labelling and regulation issues considered by the Forum are explored below.
Health Star Rating five-year review
The voluntary Health Star Rating system (HSR) has now been in action for five years and recently undergone a formal review.
The review found the HSR was ‘performing well’ in that it is well-aligned with dietary guidelines,  described as easy to understand by consumers; and has also encouraged positive reformulation of foods by companies to match the HSR requirements, with a New Zealand study showing 79% of products displaying the HSR had reformulated since 2014.
According to Dr Sturgiss, the New Zealand study also reflects outcomes in the UK.
‘One of the biggest positives that came out of the UK’s food labelling policy was that manufacturers did change what they put into their products to try and get more stars, so we know food redesign is a positive that can come out of a policy like this,’ she said.
But the report also acknowledges the HSR could be significantly improved. It recommends changes to the HSR calculator to better align with dietary guidelines, including:

  • an increase to the value of some fruit, vegetable and dairy products
  • stronger penalties for total sugars
  • re-categorisation of certain discretionary foods to decrease their HSR ratings.  
And while only around one third of packaged foods currently display the HSR, the review stops short of recommending it be made mandatory, instead suggesting its adoption be encouraged by ‘removing some of the barriers to uptake’ and setting an uptake target of 70%.
This suggestion has been criticised by public health bodies and consumer watchdogs, who feel it does not go far enough.
‘While we welcome the recommendations on the HSR, we can’t wait another five years to see only seven out of 10 products carrying these labels – that will be a decade since the system was implemented,’ Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, said.
Dr Sturgiss agrees, but hopes there could also be a way forward under the voluntary system.
‘Ideally, it would be better if it was compulsory,’ she said. ‘But I think there is a benefit for food companies if they’re getting a good star rating, and it can be seen as a bit of a “carrot” approach.
‘So that might be a better way to work with industry than making it compulsory.’

The way food labelling is regulated can have a huge impact on public health.

Labelling of sugars on packaged foods and drinks
This long been a contentious issue, subject to robust debate between the food industry and advocates for public health.
As in previous meetings, the Forum again delayed a definitive decision, instead requesting that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) review nutrition labelling for added sugars. It did single out a pictorial approach for sugary drinks – eg showing how many teaspoons of sugar the drink contains – for further consideration, in concert with a final response to the HSR review.
Advocacy groups, however, want more decisive action.
‘The labelling of sugars on packaged foods and drinks needs to be enacted, rather than merely reviewed, and information about the amount of added sugars needs to be considered in the calculation of the HSR,’ Chief Executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin, said. 
‘These recommendations are useful but there is still more work to be done to deliver for consumers.’
Dr Sturgiss agrees more action would be positive, but adds that the issue may have gained its own momentum, regardless of the regulators.
‘Even if this is not going to be a top-down, policy-driven approach, there are a lot of different consumer groups that are putting out information about sugar, particularly in sugar-sweetened beverages. So I think it’s happening anyway,’ she said.
Fast food menu board labelling
This measure, which aims to provide transparent information for consumers about the energy content of fast foods, is currently mandatory in five Australian jurisdictions and voluntary in New Zealand. But neither country has regulation determining its consistency.
The Forum agreed to develop a food regulatory measure under the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) to govern such labelling. This will be heralded by the development of a Ministerial Policy Guideline in line with best practice regulatory requirements, with ongoing consultation to be conducted with stakeholders as the work progresses.
Dr Sturgiss agreed that uniformity in fast food menu labelling would be helpful to consumers.
‘Consistency is always a good idea so that a consumer doesn’t have to learn a new approach every time they go into each food outlet,’ she said.
Supporting public health objectives to reduce chronic disease related to overweight and obesity
The Forum acknowledged that changes to food regulation alone would not be enough to combat rises in chronic disease related to obesity and overweight, and that a multi-sectorial approach is needed.
The Forum agreed to a program of activities targeted towards this problem, including: 
  • exploring the development of options for setting compositional limits for certain foods and beverages
  • partnering with regulators for advertising and marketing to develop options to strengthen policies on advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to children
  • developing a policy guideline on food labelling to enable consumers to make informed healthy food choices.
 Dr Sturgiss is pleased with the acknowledgement of the multifactorial nature of overweight and obesity as a public health concern.
‘Obesity is a very complex issue with a whole lot of different factors coming together to make this perfect storm of the obesogenic environment,’ she said.
‘It’s got to do with the food environment, with our physical environment and how much space we have for activity.
‘And then also the time we have in our day and our week; so how busy we are were at work, how stressed we are, all of it impacts on how we make decisions about our food and activity.’
However, Dr Sturgiss added it is hard to judge the proposed measures without greater specificity.
‘It’s good to see their policy addressing that we need a multi-sectorial approach. But in that document, it didn’t go much further than flagging that that was an issue,’ she said.

Dietary guidelines Food regulation Health Star Rating nutrition Obesogenic environment Overweight and obesity The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation

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