Consumer education essential to understanding food labels


This is according to panellists at the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) Summit 2014, who believe that South Africa’s Department of Health need to not only enforce legislation but also develop initiatives in consumer education.

“The impact of a food label’s ability to allow consumers to make informed decisions depends on how well the consumer understands the label,” said Jane Badham, a registered dietician and nutritionist at JB Consultancy.

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She explained that a food label is the most direct means for a food producer to communicate with its buyer in terms of basic product information, nutritional facts, health and safety.

“Labelling must be absolutely truthful, definitely not misleading, evidence based and easily understood by consumers but it requires huge amounts of consumer education and enforcement of regulations.”

“The Department of Health needs to develop consumer education initiatives.”

Badham added that while most research conducted indicates that consumers want to make healthy choices when food shopping, many of them tend to buy what their families like and what they can afford.

“Many consumers read the labels yet few believe that different foods can influence their health. In fact, many actually believe that brands that make health claims are much more trustworthy.”

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Janusz Luterek, patent attorney at Hahn & Hahn Incorporated, pointed out that the South African government is currently in the process of adding an amendment to the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act.

The new act will require all brands containing health claims in product names to change them by the 1 May 2015. Brands can no longer promote or advertise food in a manner which contains information not permitted on the food label.

“The Department of Health are allowed to remove advertising of a trademark that is detrimental to the public’s health. The objective of the regulation is to stop the deception of consumers,” said Luterek.

Megan Power, consumer columnist for the Sunday Times said however that while legislation may be useful, the most important factors should be around ethicality.

“At the end of the day, it’s not all about legislation, it’s about what’s right and ethical, which will earn companies’ brand trust,” she said.

“Consumers don’t want jargon. They want easy to understand information in plain language. Food labels must be honest, useful and promote transparency.”

For instance, products like olive oil blends need to clearly indicate the percentage of the product which is olive oil based and which is sunflower oil.