Tasmanian Liberal, Senator Guy Barnett, has an abiding interest in obesity and his party allows him to run obesity forums in Parliament House. At Senator Barnett’s most recent forum in Canberra last week, food industry attendees were mad as cut snakes because a media release featured Professor Philip James (arguably the world’s top obesity expert) urging Australia to adopt the forthcoming UK front-of-pack labelling in which the fat, sugar and salt content of foods are highlighted in green, yellow or red.

Keen to avoid such an imposition on Australian food labels, companies such as Kellogg, aided by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), have jumped the gun and are fronting their packs with a row of thumbnails listing percent daily intake (%DI) of a range of nutrients. AFGC insists this jumble of confusing information is easy to understand and that consumers like it. I have not yet found any of these consumers and you can check a Kellogg packet to see how much sense you can make of it.

Australian companies have rushed into a “proactive” stance with %DI labelling because the food industry is concerned that Australian regulators might follow the UK example and push for the traffic light system. In fact, representatives of some companies admit they just want to avoid red lights. The AFGC recommends the industry goes for “positive” labelling such as the National Heart Foundation Tick and avoids “negative” labelling such as “red lights”.

Experts brand %DI as a nonsense since the required quantity of any nutrient varies according to age and sex (and activity levels for energy content). The DI the food industry uses for energy is suitable for a non-overweight adult male (meaning it is applicable for only one third of Australian men).

You may feel comfortable if a confectionery bar says it supplies only 11% of your DI for kilojoules, although it may supply almost twice as much for a child, a woman or an overweight man. The industry also bases its DIs on Recommended Daily Intakes, which are appropriate for populations, not individuals. However, when it comes to sodium, they use the upper limit of safe intake rather than the much lower DI.

Professor James told the forum that widespread research had shown the traffic light system was much more successful in alerting consumers to foods high in fat, sugar or salt than a string of %DI values. Even better, the value of traffic light alerts was picked up evenly across all socioeconomic groups. Red lights may decrease sales of junk foods, but isn’t that exactly what an overweight community needs?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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