Chapter 15 : Nutrition labeIling
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Information about the contents of foodstuffs should be available to consumers. Listing the ingredients is one way to identify the nature of the food consumed, while providing a label which explains the nutrient content of the item is another. Labelling foods with their lipid components has received considerable attention because of consumer demand and the number of countries which are currently recommending that the general population modify their intake of dietary fats. While the appropriateness of this strategy and the ability to use such information may vary by country, health status of individuals, public health goals, and dietary patterns of different population groups within countries, it is expected that the increased availability of nutrition labels on food products will improve public health.
Characteristics of the nutrition label. Nutrition labels describe the nutrient content of a food and are intended for the consumer. Therefore, the terminology used should be meaningful and understandable to the general public. A standardized and simple format is likely to assist consumers in using food labels and in comparing foods. The nutrition information provided must be selected on the basis of consistency with dietary recommendations. Selection of the specific nutrients or food components to be listed must take into account label space, the analytical feasibility of measuring the particular nutritional component within the food matrix, and the relative costs of such analyses.
Implementing nutrition labelling. It should be noted that nutrition labelling may be questionable or irrelevant in a number of circumstances. Specifically, the nutrition label may not be cost effective or appropriate where the primary public health concern is lack of sufficient food, where educational levels are inadequate to allow consumers to read or comprehend such information, and where packaging and distribution methods for foodstuffs preclude the use of labels on or near foods. Nonetheless, it is likely that many countries have some segments of the population that would benefit from information about the lipid components of foods. In these cases, countries should consider the need to provide for appropriate labelling and its presentation relative to existing guidelines and approaches.
As nutrition labelling efforts have evolved, different approaches and legal requirements have been established. These create difficulties in developing and harmonizing nutrition information listings which have broad international applications. This includes considerations such as the number of languages to be used on the label; whether information should be expressed quantitatively, with symbols, or using descriptive phrases such as "high," "medium" or "low"; and whether the nutrition information is expressed in amounts per 100 grams of food or per specified serving. As the scientific evidence continues to emerge linking the nutrient content of foods to certain chronic disease conditions, public health policy and dietary guidance may shift and vary from country to country. While such situations are often unavoidable, it is clear that greater consistency in approaches to nutrition labelling would result in fewer barriers to promoting intemational harmonization and in greater benefits for consumers.
Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was established to implement the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling created by Codex are based on the principle that no food should be described or presented in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1992). The guidelines include provisions for voluntary nutrient declaration, calculation and presentation of nutrient information. The Guidelines on Claims establish general principles to be followed and leave the definition of specific claims to national regulations (Ibid. ). The CAC has indicated a need to address the specific issue of health and nutrition claims as they are commonly used. Current efforts are centered on developing a proposed draft on specific guidelines for claims.
The nutrition information provided should be truthful and not mislead consumers. At the same time, labelling regulations should provide incentives to manufacturers to develop products that promote public health and assist consumers in following dietary recommendations. These concerns extend to the use of health- or nutrient content-related claims about a food's desirable attributes (such as "low in fat" or "cholesterol free") which are made to promote certain food products. In many circumstances, such claims can be helpful to consumers; however, claims may be problematic when they suggest that a particular brand of a food that is inherently "free" or "low" in fat has been specially formulated and has some benefit compared with other brands. Similarly, when changes in foods are developed or formulated to suggest benefits, these must be substantial. However, this will vary according to the food category.
All of these concerns are directed not only to statements made on the food label but also to advertising for the food products. As the capacity for rapid and extensive world-wide communication grows along with the development of global brands, advertising claims about the nutritional qualities of foods have the possibility of wide use. Consideration should be given to their regulation and procedures for enforcement of standards. Moreover, the concern about claims and their potential to mislead consumers extends to restaurants and food service operations. However, rules should not be so strict as to be a disincentive for food manufacturers or providers to formulate improved products and communicate information to the public.
Another fundamental concern is whether declarations for lipid components of food should be defined for labelling purposes by their chemical structures or their physiological endpoints. From the consumer education point of view, physiological endpoints have advantages because consumers may readily apply such information. However, the supporting data for linking certain lipid components within foods to specific physiological endpoints varies; some are well-established and accepted while others are suggestive and speculative. As an example, the interest in declaring the levels of "cholesterol-raising fatty acids" would be difficult to define at this time. Furthermore, there is no universal agreement about the appropriateness of providing consumers with relatively specific information about fatty acid components of foods. Undoubtedly, as the scientific evidence continues to accumulate, appropriate decisions in these areas will become clearer.
Efforts to increase both obligatory and voluntary nutrition labelling of foods in general, and the lipid components of foods in particular, should be supported. These general suggestions stem from the considerable evidence linking dietary fats to chronic diseases and the health recommendations concerning desirable levels of fat components in human diets.
Further, it is advantageous to pursue international harmonization in this area and the efforts of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is in the process of developing and establishing guidelines for nutrition labelling and food claims, should be supported. However, any efforts to harmonize details will be very complicated and these would be best accommodated in a small forum, for example, as an expert consultation or in ad hoc working groups.
There are specific recommendations for the appropriate components of the label. The total fat should be declared and should be defined as the sum of all fatty acids providing energy. This is consistent with the guidelines provided by Codex Alimentarius and the provisions of the European Community. Such declarations should be in gram increments. Saturated fat should be declared and should be defined as the sum of fatty acids without double bonds. This is also consistent with the guidelines provided by Codex Alimentarius and the provisions of the European Community. These declarations should be in gram increments as well. The cholesterol content should be declared in 10 milligram increments. Neither Codex Alimentarius nor the European Community have made provisions for the declaration of this fat component. Claims concerning saturated fatty acids in foods should be restricted to foods with appropriately low or limited levels of trans isomers of fatty acids. There is considerable agreement about the effects of trans fatty acids on serum cholesterol levels. It would be inappropriate to suggest an advantage of a food in reducing the risk of heart disease if it contained other components that clearly increase the risk of heart disease.
Although general agreement concerning appropriateness or desirability have not been reached, it may be useful to consider other special concerns relative to labelling. For instance, declarations for the caloric contribution of the fat content of the food. This should be as fat calories, not as percent fat. Declarations for the amount of trans isomers of fatty acids in a food, either as a separate listing or as a component of the saturated fat listing is another concern. Finally, declarations for the amount of n-3, n-6 and monounsaturated fatty acids should be considered.
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