Saturday, January 15

Five reasons why South Africa is not prepared for health claims on food labels

South Africa has a high number of deceased noncommunicable diseases, which are largely linked to diet and lifestyle. So-called ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, French fries, chocolate, and sweetened breakfast cereals, come under special scrutiny. The evidence is mounting of its role in the development of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers and chronic lung diseases.

exist Many reasons why consumption of ultra-processed foods is increasing. The industrialization of food systems, technological change and globalization play a role. Other frequently cited reason it is the growth of transnational food companies in countries with inadequate policies to protect nutrition.

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One way to help people make healthy food choices might be to add health claims to the packaging of foods that qualify as healthy. Such statements could present health benefits in an accessible way and guide consumers’ choices towards foods with better nutritional profiles. Health claims are used in the European Union. But at the moment, South Africa only has bill that would allow for some health claims.

Before conducting our research, not much was known about what stakeholders in the food labeling landscape thought about the proposal. These include physicians, dietitians, public health professionals, food scientists, food business owners, and consumers.

The intention of our research was to gain in-depth insight from a wide range of stakeholders on the effectiveness of health claims on labels in influencing consumption. We also wanted to explore how feasible it would be to run it in a developing country like South Africa.

It turned out that there are still unanswered questions about justification and compliance with health claims. And there is no apparent way to reach consumers in the informal market. These issues would limit the benefits of health claims at this time.

Labels are not the only tool needed in the effort to prevent noncommunicable diseases.

Main findings

We conducted 49 interviews and asked participants to share their views on whether including health claims on food labels could help consumers make healthier food choices.

The research yielded knowledge on five topics.

Practical barriers: Literacy, readability, language, the actual presence of a label on a product, and socio-economic circumstances can all be obstacles. These factors mean that a person cannot use a food label to inform their choice. South Africa has 11 official languages, but English (as used on food labels) is the home language of only 12% of the population.

Relevance: Assuming all practical barriers were overcome, someone may not yet use the tag. They may lack the knowledge or motivation to make the information relevant to them. Or they may not read the label if they are in a hurry.

Messenger service: There are differences in the way people prefer to receive messages and information. Labels are often in a dry, scientific format that doesn’t appeal to the average consumer. Most respondents suggested that labels could warn them about the health risks of food or rate it on some kind of scale.

Some people liked the idea of ​​health claims. However, to our surprise, many rejected the idea, saying that the food industry could take advantage of health claims for commercial reasons.

App: Moving away from the label itself, stakeholders were concerned that health claims could create a gap for unscrupulous gamers to take advantage of the fact that there is no really proper regulatory enforcement in South Africa.

Confidence: There was also evidence of a lack of trust between the food industry and the healthcare industry. This seemed to be due to differences in responsibilities. Food manufacturers are under pressure to sell cheap food in a highly unequal society, and healthcare takes the burden if people get sick.

Finally, we find support for the idea of ​​ambassadors for change. These are people, professionals, or even companies that go the extra mile to help people make better food choices and drive compliance. In particular, retailers wanted to push for compliance with food label legislation.


The list of what it takes to make South Africa healthy is long. But here are some key things to consider.

Food scientists and technologists must design better foods. The nutritional profile of new foods could be improved and existing ones. Technologies could, in the future, make it possible for food to have fewer additives and to be more affordable.

Labeling does not have to remain in the Middle Ages. It may be possible to work on the size and readability of the information that is on the package or to use technology to overcome the barriers to readability and language.

Retailers must stock and promote an increasing number of healthier options. This will make it easier for consumers to make healthier choices, whether they read the label or not.

Education related to food and health in schools should be interesting, relevant and practical.

The intersection between food and health is much more complex than can be addressed with a single food label. All stakeholders need to have a mature conversation about the facts (the huge burden of noncommunicable diseases) and the practicalities (how to feed a nation where millions are hungry or undernourished due to poverty).The conversation

Melvi Todd, PhD Candidate (Food Science), Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the Original article.

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