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Should Milo also have to declare that it boosts sugar intake by 70% compared to milk?Gareth Morgan

Food labelling regulations starved of facts

Around half of Kiwis admit they are baffled about how to eat healthily.

Think about that. That is one in two people. Half the nation. There is no better indication that the modern food market is broken – how can people possibly be expected to make an informed choice?

It gets worse. The other half – those of us that think they know what they are doing – often don’t. It turns out that most of us, when faced with deciphering a nutrition label or health claim on our food, will stuff it up. Are we too stupid, or are we simply walking into the trap set for us by the food manufacturing industry?

Be very clear: producers never champion provision of full and accurate information to customers

You probably think you aren’t influenced by advertising or food industry claims, but you’re probably wrong.

As we have grown to realise that the modern processed food we eat is killing us, food companies have increasingly tried to make us think their food is healthy so that we’ll keep munching their products with a clear conscience. And it works; in fact it is an industry marketing tactic known as the ‘health halo’. For example ‘low fat’ claims on food convince people to eat 50% more than they otherwise would.

Consumers think they are being healthy but end up scoring an own goal. This makes the food manufacturers really happy, but leaves the consumer still battling the bulge and besieging our health system.

Over the weekend the Government announced it is tightening up the regulation of health claims to ensure that they are based on science. This is undoubtedly a positive step. The quid pro quo for this however is that food companies will be able to go even further than before and make health claims about their products.

Despite the tighter regulation, it could add to the confusion we face when picking things off the supermarket shelves.

Food companies like health claims; no surprise as they like anything that shifts their products off the shelves. They assert health claims encourage them to innovate and compete for customers based on the healthiness of their products.

What an inexplicable thing it is, then, that they oppose compulsory front-of-pack labelling, which would achieve the same result but in a much more standardised way. Clearly the voluntary nature of nutrient and health claims is what really appeals to the industry; they want to pick and choose what the public knows.

Be very clear: producers never champion provision of full and accurate information to customers. That would take away the scope to dupe and exploit – always a way to generate at least short term windfall profits. They want us to know the good things about their products, but not the bad stuff.

The downsides of modern manufactured food should be declared with equal fanfare as the supposed nutrient and health benefits.

Food labelling today is in a similar mess as the financial sector disclosures from ten years ago. There, voluntary disclosure and standards led to disaster; at which point the government finally started to regulate.

Why would companies voluntarily have a simple system that informs customers when they can overload them with information in the knowledge that they will skip over the fine print? That way they can always hide behind the fact that they provided information, safe in the notion that only those people with a nutrition degree will understand it.

So well done to the Government on putting some boundaries around the gobbledegook that food companies can claim. Sadly it is unclear this will really do much to clear up the confusion that faces the average kiwi when choosing what to pop in their shopping basket.

We need a simple, compulsory, standardised front of pack nutrition labelling system that tells consumers how healthy a product is to eat, particularly levels of sugar, salt and saturated fat.

Until that happens, the main thing to remember is that it is the stuff without any labels – particularly fruit & veg – that is really healthy.
[message_box title=”Our new book on food” color=”red”]Geoff and I are writing a new book on the food we eat in NZ. Click here to learn more. [/message_box]




  • Anake Goodall

    the “learn more” link leads nowhere ;(

  • Frances Louis

    Nothings Natural anymore, Just Murder, Hate, Blasphemy, not necessarily that order. /so if anyone wants to be sweet, Milo aint it.

    • Frances Louis

      My milo is too sweet. and i am a sweetie.

  • Curtis Antony Nixon

    Good on you Gareth – you are in the minority of people who show they care about issues enough to do something. When’s your political party launch?

  • Mike McGavin

    “Why would companies voluntarily have a simple system that informs customers when they can overload them with information in the knowledge that they will skip over the fine print?”

    Are there any good model countries that have managed to solve this problem in a satisfying way?

    Also, does it have to be on the packaging? How about, for instance, requiring that food manufacturers, which meet certain criteria, provide full and objective information to an independent (probably government) authority before it’s allowed to be sold as food? Let them design their packaging however they like, but require that supermarkets and other retailers make the information clearly and visibly available next to the shelving of the product? Retailers, especially supermarkets, possibly have less of a direct issue with being honest about a product if it merely means a customer will buy something else from them instead. Let customers directly access the database by scanning barcodes in shops or at home, or wherever they are.

    Or would that be over-the-top in administration costs, or ineffective for other reasons?

  • Wanda Dudek

    Think all food labels with sugars and carbs over a certain percentage should carry a health warning about diabetes. Plus fruit is a an area to be cautious around as fructose is also not a good thing

  • Glenn


    I do hope in your new book that you’re going to take into account some of the latest research which suggests that saturated fat is neutral or even beneficial with respects to health. E.g.:

    And that perhaps the ubiquity of polyunsaturated fats is more the villain. E.g.: (layperson’s view)

    • Gareth Morgan

      As usual we will be taking a balanced view on all things related to food based on science.

      • Glenn

        Happy to hear that. I took it from your mention of saturated fat that you take modern dietary levels of it to be problematic, which of
        course is the conventional view. The links I provided tend to contradict that viewpoint and instead point the finger at omega-6 polyunsaturated fats – present at high levels (~25-80+%) in the (cheap and evolutionarily novel) seed oils (soybean, canola, corn, etc) ubiquitously used in making convenience foods. (McDonald’s deep fries with a “canola blend”, for example. Canola oil is 7% saturated fat, 28% polyunsaturated fat). Traditional home cooking would have used tallow, lard, butter/ghee, olive, coconut milk, etc. which contain much lower levels of omega-6 fats (~0-20%) and much higher levels of saturated fats. As such, the promotion of seed oils as being ‘healthy’ during the 20th century has elicited an evolutionary ‘mismatch’ (as Sir Peter Gluckman might say) which appears to have profound implications in the health crisis. (“Both n-3 and n-6 nutrients [omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids] have beneficial actions, but many common health disorders are undesired consequences of excessive actions of tissue n-6 HUFA which are preventable” ).

        As an aside, if you’re wondering why people seem to benefit so much from fish consumption and/or omega 3 (fish oil) supplementation it may be because “… omega-3 and omega-6 forms compete with each other during the metabolic steps by which they accumulate in our tissues”#. I.e. too much omega-6
        in the diet ‘drowns out’ the ‘anti-inflammatory’ omega 3 our tissues require.


      • Glenn

        p.s. this graphic from the NZ Heart Foundation (irony unintended considering their recommendations) nicely illustrates my point that that the proportion of polyunsaturated fat in modern seed oils is vastly discordant with that of fats traditionally used in home cooking (beef tallow, butter, coconut oil, olive oil):

      • Glenn

        p.p.s (and finally; well your tagline is “Leave your indifference at the door”) I would agree with you that undernutrition is contributory to the ‘health crisis’, and I would suggest that the science now points to overnutrition of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat (rather than saturated fat) as also contributory.

        I would be happy to point you to further references should you be interested. I wish you well with your writing!

        (As another aside, I would suggest that salt may well also be somewhat wrongly maligned, but that’s another story… )