Wednesday, 11 February 2015

How to improve consumer food choices?

This month BEUC published its position paper on consumer nutrition: "Informed food choices for healthier consumers". Generally, the end responsibility to eat healthy rests on the consumer, however, it should not surprise anyone that consumer's choices with regard to nutrition are driven by food marketing. The complex and non-transparent food environment hinders healthy consumer choices with regard to food. Additionally, consumption pattern has changed and we tend to eat more processed food, of little nutritional value, but highly calorific, filled with added sugar, salt and saturated fat and lacking on vegetables and fruit. This may be the result of the fact that unhealthy food is often cheaper and easier accessible than healthy options. That is why the European Consumer Organisation calls for the introduction of better and more efficient European food policy with regard to consumer nutrition, believing that if the food environment and our behavioral patterns drive us to unhealthy food choices at this moment, both these factors could be influenced to re-shape our nutrition choices (p. 5).

First, the European legislator could introduce labelling on the front of the package of any food product (p. 7 - "as it is a time-saver"). This would be more likely to get consumer attention and if it came together with simplifying this information (e.g. by color-coding levels of sugar, salt, fat), consumers could be one step closer to making good nutritional decisions (p. 8-9 on raising awareness of consumers about the nutritional profiles of food). 

"More specifically a quiz launched by the Slovenian Consumer Organisation (ZPS) found that without traffic lights, only 35% of people correctly answer the questions on sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat contents. In contrast, when traffic lights were used 85% of respondents gave the right answer. Our Dutch member, Consumentenbond, found roughly the same results: without traffic lights 43% gave the right answer, while with traffic lights 90% of respondents correctly identified products high in salt, added sugar and unhealthy fat."

"Which? research showed people can eat over three times the fat and saturated fat as well as double the amount of salt depending on which chicken sandwich brand they choose."

"It is important to highlight that as colours are attributed to nutrients and not the whole product, traffic lights do not discriminate against certain products in particular but merely inform consumers as to the amounts of key nutrients such as sugar, salt and saturated fat. For instance, under a traffic lights scheme a sorbet would get a red for sugar whilst a vanilla ice cream would get an amber. At the same time the ice cream would get a red for fat while the sorbet would get a green. While seeing that on average sorbets contain less calories than ice cream people would also understand that sorbet remains a product high in sugar and that they should take into account this information to balance their whole diet." (p. 10)

However, the information on these labels should be truthfully relayed and not made more attractive than it should be. That is to say, food producers should not be allowed to claim health benefits of their products only on the basis of adding some desired nutrients to the food (vitamins), when the rest of its ingredients would remain harmful. (p. 11-12)

"In Austria our member Konsument found that health claims for calcium and multivitamins were appearing on the FOP of biscuits filled with sugar, salt and fat."

Therefore, BEUC is calling for a speedy introduction of minimum healthy nutrient profiles by the European Commission.

Another issue remains that current consumers lifestyle often prevents them from taking time to prepare a healthy meal at home. Getting food outside consumer's home has become a common occurrence. To assist consumers in improving their nutrition under such circumstances, BEUC calls for the improvement of food labelling eaten outside consumer's home. For example, restaurant menus could list energy, salt, sugar, fat intake by every dish. (p. 13-14)

"In the USA, where menu labelling is mandatory for chain restaurants (defined as those with 20 outlets nationally), many fast food chains have developed new food items to meet a specific calorific threshold and some committed to change recipes to add more fruits and vegetables to their menu options. A study performed in the US found that in order to affect customers’ purchasing behaviours, nutritional information must be visibly displayed e.g. on a menu board so that it can be considered by the consumer before placing an order, not afterwards. The information should be readable, meaning the font sizes should be similar to the one used for the name of the product, it should be as clear and easy to read as the price of the item."

The European legislator could also adjust current standards for fat, salt and sugar levels in products, as well as to motivate producers to lower these levels further (especially since the food market shows that currently similar products exist with different levels of these substances). 

"In the EU the average salt intake is almost twice the maximum level set by scientific bodies including the WHO." (p. 16)

"In Switzerland, the consumer organisation FRC found a tomato sauce can contain up to eleven times the amount of salt of another tomato sauce." (p. 17)

Additionally, food producers should be incentivized to increase the levels of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins in their food. (p. 19)

Moreover, the food marketing sector should be further controlled and additional measures could be taken to prevent marketing of unhealthy food products to children. 

"For instance in theory companies agreed to remove toys from kids menus, yet this practice is still widespread. More importantly each company can set its own rules, especially when it comes to determining which food can and cannot be advertised to children. BEUC members found that if food companies were to put children’s meals together 80% of the plate would be filled with processed food high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fat (fast food and snacks). By comparison, fruit and vegetables would account for 0.2% of the total plate." (p. 22)

A child could be defined as up to age 16 (currently - 12 years old). (p. 24) School programs should promote healthy nutrition. And supermarkets could start nudging their clients to healthy choices through in-store promotions and healthy store design. Obviously, this would require that the choice architecture would be taken over by the legislators and not left in the hands of the sector anymore.

"Another urging move would be to remove sweets and sugary snacks at check out as most supermarkets check out are filled in junks. Research from the Swiss Consumer Organization FRC found that all supermarkets visited sold unhealthy products such as candies, biscuits and in 89% of cases it was physically accessible to kids." (p. 25)

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