Megan Power

Food labelling giveth – but taketh too

Most South African food industrialists are probably by now (or should be) au fait with “R146”, the new food labelling regulations, and what they entail. Coming into force this month, there has been much media interest in what R146 means for the public, with Megan Power, consumer columnist on the Sunday Times, the latest to expand on what’s allowed and what’s not. Today’s health-conscious consumers are far more likely to live by the adage, “You are what you eat”. And today’s manufacturers are far more likely to reveal what’s in the food they sell.

The trouble is that often we get too little information – or too much. Lack of transparency and misleading, exaggerated claims abound.

This and the growth of the food industry have led to the new food-labelling law that kicked in this month.

But the Department of Health’s new regulations, known as R146, have not been without controversy. They seem, for the time being at least, to give to consumers with one hand and take away with the other.

So what exactly should consumers be celebrating? Food scientist and consultant Nigel Sunley, a former president of the South African Association for Food Science & Technology, separates the wheat from the chaff.

Why are the new food regulations necessary?

Because the old ones did not take account of changes, including greater consumer awareness; the role of food in maintaining health; and greater use and abuse of nutritional and health claims by manufacturers.

Many companies have provided misleading and sometimes incorrect information to consumers, so additional regulation was badly needed. The move also ties in with the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act.

What is regarded as an irresponsible and misleading claim?

Claims that a certain type of product brings you specific health benefits are prohibited. Any claim that cannot be substantiated by means of scientifically acceptable evidence is a definite no-no. We should see a further set of regulations in due course that will tackle this area in more detail.

In other areas, there are now severe restrictions on the use of terms such as “natural”, “fresh”, “traditional” and “quality” – all the typical marketing hype words.

To be compliant, a so-called “natural muesli” would have to contain whole raw oats – complete with their husks – and unroasted nuts, and would be totally inedible.

What about “free from” claims?

Manufacturers will not be permitted to insinuate that their product is free of a certain attribute – when, in fact, all products of this type are free from this attribute. A good example is cholesterol-free sunflower oil – all sunflower oil is free from cholesterol!

In the area of additives, “free from”-type claims for food additives can be made only when that category of product is allowed to contain the additive, but the manufacturer has not used it. So a “tartrazine free” claim would be acceptable for a soft drink, as tartrazine is a permitted additive…..

Sunday Times: Read the full article