Nutritionist warns Responsibility Deal could hit healthy food sales

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acids Nutrition

Nutritionist warns Responsibility Deal could hit healthy food sales
Corporate nutritionist Kate Cook has attacked the government’s Responsibility Deal for a “one-dimensional approach” to calorie labelling on food that risks damaging sales of foods such as salmon and endangering public health.

The Department of Health’s (DOH’s) voluntary Responsibility Deal​ includes a raft of voluntary industry targets regarding salt reduction, removal of trans-fats by 2012, clear unit labelling on alcohol and initiatives to encourage physical activity.

But Cook (who works with a number of major food brands) told that she takes issue with another facet of the plan that requires signatories, including major food manufacturers and retailers, to include prominent calorie labelling​ on all food consumed in ‘out of home’ settings.

This includes products sold at restaurants, quick-service restaurants, takeaways, cafés, pubs, sandwich shops, and staff restaurants.

Salmon junk food

Cook said that a disproportionate emphasis upon calorie counting could impact upon consumers’ ability to make “good overall choices for their dietary health”​, with the measure potentially having the opposite effect to that desired by government.

One foodstuff Cook thinks could suffer when more prominent calorie labelling comes into force is salmon, which according to non-profit scientific body The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) contains around 10% fat, but risks being ranked alongside low quality junk food if one only counts calories.

According to the EUFIC: "This fat ​[in salmon] is more unsaturated, and richer in omega-3 fatty acids and therefore better for your health. Omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on cardiovascular health, protecting against heart disease."

Cook believes the new labelling initiative could also have a knock-on effect on store sales:“Sure, salmon forms part of an unhealthy diet if you’re in the supermarket and you buy salmon, some chocolates and a tub of lard.

“But if you choose salmon (which is also high in beneficial omega-3s and protein) potatoes and vegetables then it is a healthy choice."

Consumers in dark

Cook warned the focus on calories also risked misleading consumers regarding the nutritional, and general, quality of low calorie foods, especially when their quality was not indicated.

One example she gave was popcorn, which she said is low fat but nutrient void; she also cited a low-calorie sandwich range sold by a high street retailer (that she declined to name), which she said used low quality ingredients.

“Some ‘diet’ range sandwiches are very low in calories but encourage unstable blood sugar and don’t provide enough energy, leading to snacking and weight gain. A higher calorie alternative could be a better choice for sustainable weight loss.

“The government is scratching its head now as to why obesity is rising, but people are not considering how food impacts upon blood sugar… the way it is processed in our bodies. If we get sugar dips then we risk craving bad foods later in the day.”

Labelling initiatives

Cook suggested that brands and retailers use a range of labelling initiatives to avoid losing market share because of an incomplete picture of nutritional value, and to allow consumers to make informed choices.

However, she recognised the need for caution given the EU regulations on nutrition and health claims that would prohibit a claim such as ‘salmon is a great protein source and can help balance blood sugar’.

Recommendations include relevant nutrition facts on packaging that helps consumers relate choices to lifestyle goals; inclusion of micro- (vitamins and minerals) and macro-nutrients (calories, protein, fat) on menu and product breakdowns with the benefits explained; specific menus relating to dietary need.

Asked if there was enough space on labels to do so, she said: “Much of the information on labels is pretty meaningless anyway.

"Take the nutritional panel that lists ‘Carbohydrates of which’, ‘Fats’, etc. It means diddly squat to the average consumer in real terms. Initiatives such as traffic lights and Sainsbury’s pie chart don’t mean much to anyone either. The best way is to include less information and to make it more obvious.”

Industry response

A Food & Drink Federation (FDF) spokeswoman noted that the calorie labelling only applied to catering, not food manufacturers’ packaging.

On the issue of food labelling for manufacturers, Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the FDF said: “UK food manufacturers have voluntarily been providing comprehensive nutrition information on packaging for many years to help consumers make their choice.

“This includes detailed back of pack information along with clear front of pack information with guideline daily amounts on calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.”

Related topics Legal Meat, poultry & seafood

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