CAMPAIGN CALLS FOR HEALTH WARNINGS ON FOOD
Is food your friend or your foe? A newly launched campaign is calling for clearer warning labels on certain processed foods to help South Africans spot hidden health hazards and make more informed choices
The unhealthy packaged food you buy your family may be high in sugar, salt and saturated fat – all of which have been directly linked to life-threatening conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Children as young as 12 are being diagnosed with hyper tension, making them vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes. South Africa also has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world.
Researchers and nutritionists believe that one of the reasons that many people are unable to make healthier food choices is because the labels on packaged food products are unclear and confusing. People need to know what’s hidden in their food. For this reason, advocacy group, Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA), is rolling out a media campaign calling for bold and simple front-of-package labels (FoPLs) that are similar to those on packets of cigarettes.
HEALA was one of the leading voices championing health equity in South Africa in 2018. Demands for reforms to policy ultimately led to the imposition of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Even today, few South Africans know that the average 500ml bottle of soft drink contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Nzama Mbalati, HEALA’s Programme’s Manager, explains: “While new draft legislation on packaging is waiting in the wings, there have been protracted delays, so HEALA is urging consumers and community organisations, traditional
leaders and NGOs to call for change. It is time to empower shoppers with the information that they need to make the right decisions and protect their families’ health.”
He continues: “At the moment, one needs to be as informed as a dietician to know what the information at the back of a packet of food means. To empower consumers, we need front-of-package labels to help them identify what the industry is selling to them.”
The nationwide campaign, ‘What’s in our Food?’, which will be flighted on television, radio and digital media from this month onwards, urges people to question what hidden ingredients can be found in pre-packaged foods.
While high levels of sugar may be obvious, large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup aren’t always. But they are a common flavourant in the likes of fruit juices, sauces and condiments, jams and even bread and breakfast cereals. Food is also often packed with artificial colourants and preservatives to improve everything from appearance to shelf life all in the name of profit.
The same goes for dangerous fats (commonly known as trans fats) and salt. Additives and preservatives are usually listed on labels – but most South Africans do not know what the highly scientific names actually mean.
Many of the ingredients in our food account for spiralling levels of obesity as well as preventable non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and some cancers which, combined, kill up to 43% of people in South Africa each year. Others have been linked to anything from allergies to dementia.
FOOD AND CHILDREN
One of the most troubling issues is that bad eating habits begin in childhood – with adults being responsible for the foods that children become familiar with and eat throughout their lives.
Makoma Bopape, senior lecturer at the University of Limpopo’s Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, is part of a team that completed a recent study on the efficacy of front-of-package labels in parental food purchasing.
Bopape says this research indicated that children in both urban and rural settings were the most vulnerable consumers of ultra-processed foods.
She says that children – and their parents – are also the targets of aggressive advertising campaigns by large food companies which mislead people into believing that products such as fruit juices, yoghurt and breakfast cereals are healthy, when they are often laced with sugar, salt and processed carbohydrates.
In short, your average cereal bar or health drink may not be all it is wrapped up to be. Many unhealthy snacks are also strategically placed near till points with parents becoming victims of what is known as ‘pester power’ from children. Many give in and buy dubious treats to avoid a scene or to exit a shop as quickly as possible.
RESEARCH DIGS DEEPER
Bopape says: “Increasing childhood obesity and poor eating habits have resulted in children as young as 12 being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and related lifestyle diseases. Ultimately, poor eating is not only endangering the physical health of the younger generation but also impacting on their mental health as overweight children tend to become isolated and depressed.”
The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-1) reported a combined overweight and obesity prevalence of 13.5% in children aged between six and 14 years. This is higher than the 10% global prevalence in schoolchildren.
She adds that, while research showed that poor buying choices were also the result of lack of nutritional knowledge amongst parents and caregivers who were the main decision makers when purchasing food for children, even consumers who were aware of nutrition-related issues quickly became discouraged when attempting to read food labels and find it difficult to decipher the fine print on the back of a can or a box.
“People cannot make sense of what all of those numbers on food labels represent. We also found that a lot of people do not read labels because of lack of time. The ingredient list is long and few people can go through each and every item, so they end up looking for just one or two specific ingredients,” says Bopape.
The end result is that, even though the nutrition information is there, it just becomes part of the packaging, serving no purpose at all.
Mbalati says: “Amazingly, even tobacco smokers know more about what they are purchasing and why they are endangering their health because regulations have been put in place and there are clear warnings on the front of cigarette packets. We feel that there is enough evidence to link poor diet with obesity and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers, which is why we need foods that cross the threshold of safety to carry warnings, now.”
HEALA’s decision to ramp up its campaign this year is in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations that governments must legislate the use of easy-to-understand nutrition labels so that consumers think twice before placing foods that are high in sugar, salt or saturated fat in their shopping baskets.
Front-of-package label regulations have already been implemented in at least 10 countries, including Argentina, Mexico and Chile.
Bopape and her fellow researchers created a front of package label that was shown to a sample of consumers in Limpopo province. Discussions with parents indicated that these provided sufficient information for consumers to rethink a buying decisions during the 10 seconds that it takes the average purchaser to select an item and place it in a trolley.
“We encourage all South Africans to carefully consider the contents of the food they are eating and giving to their children, particularly processed, packaged foods. We also invite the public to join the #whatsinourfood campaign and demand to know what’s in their food,” says Mbalati.
For more information, visit www.whatsinourfood.org.za to get more information on how you can be a part of the cause, or add your voice by sending a WhatsApp to: 079 751 9751.