Food labels will indicate the calories, fat, salt and sugar content of products by next Summer in an attempt to make us choose healthier foods but history has shown that legislation is far more effective in changing peoples’ behaviour . Is it time to ban or regulate unhealthy foods? Think about how effective legislation has been in the compulsory wearing of car seat belts, mandatory use of child car seats and the ban on smoking in public places etc.
The foods we buy are influenced by many factors – time, ability or willingness to cook, likes and dislikes, cost, knowledge about nutrition, values and beliefs about health etc. Food labelling addresses one factor that influences food choices and that is lack of knowledge. If we believe ignorance about food facts is a potential barrier to making less healthy food choices, how can people make a fair comparision of the healthiness of packaged foods, labelled with the food facts with products sold loose, typically fruit and vegetables, which we should be eating more of and are unlabelled?
The fact is that many of us find The Eat Well Plate healthy eating guidance and the recommended daily calorie intake unsustainable. Food is not just about what we need, but also about what we want and the equation between the two is not balanced. We want and eat too much. The apparent food rationing as suggested by a ban or regulation of unhealthy foods may sound harsh. But during World War II, food rationing initiatives included the availability of only one type of bread called the National Loaf, (similar to today’s brown bread) made from wholemeal flour . It was introduced in the UK to combat war shortages of white flour and during this period, the nation experienced unprecedented levels of good public health.
Many packaged foods that will bear the labelling recommendations are processed. Whilst often higher in fat, sugar and salt than unprocessed foods, they are also usually less filling, leading to the temptation to eat more and exceed the calorie intake for the day.
Food labelling should still be welcomed as a positive step in reducing obesity. But people will only change what they buy if they really want to. But where there is will, there is of course a way. I read the food labels, selecting items lower in sugar, fat and salt. I always check the amount of fat per 100g of the product and if it is less than 10%, I know I am making a healthier choice. I have learnt to love fruit and vegetables and eating enough of them will keep you fuller for longer. On that last point by the way, I agree with TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith and her strict ‘no white bread’ policy (though I do support many other things in moderation). Perhaps she could start a national campaign for the return of the National Loaf or the regulation of unhealthy foods? Or would this be a case of Nanny Stateism going too far?
If we want to beat the obesity war, it calls for radical action. For me, the real question is “Are we brave enough to fight it?”