Food labeling has been hailed as one of the most transparent efforts of the food industry to gain the confidence of the consumer who is supposed to have the right to know what he is buying and eating. Granted that this is a sort of empowerment of the consumer, a logical question is whether these labels do any useful purpose when it comes to taking a decision regarding what is healthy or unhealthy and still worse how much is good for the well being of the consumer? For many labeling does not make any sense as the numbers printed in the nutrition labeling table are just numbers with no meaning, especially to an uneducated person and invariably very few people read them before buying any product. The intention of the policy makers and health pundits are indeed laudable but whether such declarations do have any impact on the eating behavior or the overall health of the consumer is a million dollar question begging for an answer. The fact that almost 15 to 35% of the population in almost all countries across the world are either overweight or obese is a telling commentary on the effectiveness of the current label declaration laws in the world. Can there be any solution to this intractable problem and will any improvements in the labeling regulations bring about a change in the consumer attitude and perception about food and health and moderate the consumption?
One of the basic principles of health and nutrition is that one must balance the consumption of calories based on the physical activity that is part of the life. Though 2000-3000 kCals are often bandied about as the daily requirement of an individual depending on factors like age, profession, type of physical activity, environmental conditions including ambient temperatures prevalent and finally amount of exercise one indulges in daily. Thus a sedentary person may need lesser calories than an athletic individual and there fore food consumption will have to be different. People tend to put on weight beyond the normal body weight when calorie consumption exceeds the level that is necessary to maintain a steady state of equilibrium with all the calories burned off for the daily activity associated with normal life. The concept of Body Mass Index (BMI) evolved years ago is a yardstick that helps to define whether a person is normal, over weight or obese. While a BMI figure of 25 is considered normal, when it reaches 30 one becomes over weight Obesity becomes the rule if BMI figure exceeds 35 and it is generally considered a disease requiring treatment, lest other more serious diseases like CVD, diabetes, blood pressure, kidney ailments etc follow, making life more miserable and risky.
No doubt nutrition labeling does indicate the amount of calories contained in one serving of a particular food product manufactured by the industry which helps to moderate consumption in many cases. But such information does not sink in when products are eaten sporadically through out the day in several servings which can have a cumulative effect on the calorie intake without the consumer realizing about it. How does a person know that he gets sufficient calories to perform his day to day activities without fatigue or weakness? There is a well set body mechanism with timely signals to indicate satiety when eating should be stopped. But once a person gets too much attached to food such signals are ignored resulting in over eating and many times gluttony. When too much food beyond the body's need is ingested naturally excess calories get converted to body fat that is stored in places like belly and other vulnerable parts of the body, distorting the shape of the person with pot belly. There is still no unanimity regarding the roles played by the three major contributors of calories in our foods though lately the focus has shifted from fat to carbohydrates. Most of the industrial foods that dominate the markets in the well to do affluent countries are all considered "fattening" because they are all loaded with "empty calories", meaning they are rich in calories but devoid of vitally needed nutrients like proteins, dietary fiber, EFAs, vitamins and minerals. To add to this "deficiency" these foods are designed to make them addictive with too much sugar and fat.
Modern foods churned out by the industry are made from unhealthy ingredients like sugar, white flour, highly refined saturated fats and trans fats, meats with practically no dietary fiber and natural nutrients besides being fast digesting releasing the calories too fast. In contrast foods made from natural raw materials like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish do not raise blood sugar levels quickly enabling the body metabolic apparatus to "manage" them on its own pace. Adding to this burden is the presence of many processing artifacts, leachates from packaging materials and man made chemicals like crop protectants and preservatives which all have debilitating impact on the human body. Is it possible and feasible to expect the industry which markets thousands of products to address all these concerns on a small label? This is where the regulatory authorities come into focus and to day's knowledge base helps to weed out many unsafe and unhealthy substances from the processed food products which have to conform to rigorous safety regimes mandated in each country, well supported by international agencies like WHO, FAO, IAEC, UNICEF and others. In spite of all these controls food related mortality rates are steadily increasing. A complex situation that needs more attention globally.
Probably the knowledge disseminated through the label regarding how many calories a chocolate bar, a packet of chips, or a serving of an ice cream will provide may not be sufficient to "impress upon" the consumer as to how much exercise he has to do to burn it off. Will it take half an hour or one hour of walking or running to get rid of these calories.? Why is such an information crucial for the consumer? In what way it will help him? To answer this we have to consider the importance of the staple diet in influencing the health of an individual. If a human being has to get 2000 calories of energy, 50 gms of proteins, 50 gms of fat besides other micronutrients through food consumed every day, how much of the energy can come from casual food items like beverages, fried foods, sweetened snacks or other low nutrient density foods? This is important to avoid over consumption of these calorie rich foods and under consumption of proteins and other vital nutrients. Can a person survive for long if whole of the calories come from low nutrient junk foods without causing serious health crisis? It is here that the need arises to link food consumption with exercise. If the label indicates that one has to run for 1 hour to burn the calories contained in a serving of a particular food or two hours of walking for the same, this can be expected to have a sobering influence on eating casual foods to a significant extent.
Probably pictorial presentation of calorie burning exercises like walking, running, cycling or tread mill and the duration of the exercise for burning the calories in the packed products may really help most layman in restricting food intake as much as possible. If consumption of a sugary soft drink, about 200 ml, containing about 100 kCals calls for walking at least for about 15 minutes or running for 8 minutes, this can be a constant reminder that such drinks, not part of a regular meal, should not taken multiple times a day. Similarly If eating a quarter of a large sized pizza with more than 400 kCals will necessitate walking for 75 min or running for 45 mins, it will definitely scare a consumer that may act as a disincentive against over consumption of pizza. A single piece of cinnamon roll with 400 calories will require 120 mins of walking or 40 mins of running to shake off the calories. Eating a 50 gm portion of roasted peanut with 300 kCals will call for 50 mins of walking or 30 minutes of running to neutralize the calories ingested. The idea is excellent but whether practical needs to be considered.
Enlightened consumers can be expected to encourage the concept of activity-equivalent calorie labels wholeheartedly. Processing industry will probably resist any such move because of its implications on their bottom line due to lower purchase of their products by a well informed consumer worried about their health. While it may agree to include such information in their web sites, it can have no impact as most of the population are computer illiterate besides having no access to internet in spite of the "free basics" being promoted by one of the internet giants. Current information barrage on the nutrition labels has very little influence on the consumer and replacing them with simplistic ones containing just the basic nutritive facts like calories, fat, sugar, carbohydrates, health value as presented by the traffic lights system and calorie-activity equivalents may be more than sufficient.
A pertinent question that may be asked is whether in a country like India such labels will have any relevance at all? May be it is not because more than 90% of the population do not consume packed foods except biscuits, their life style dependent on staple home cooked diets or small and mini eateries serving a variety of freshly cooked foods. It is not practical to force these eateries to display calorie-activity equivalent information for the benefit of the customers. Besides even the existing labeling system is so complicated and eye-straining to read and understand as most of the population are English language illiterates. Ultimately sociologists will step in saying that education is the only solution to make the masses understand the goodness or otherwise of the foods they consume. This may be true but from the practical angle a long time consuming process which should be pursued as a long term objective while bilingual labels containing vital information on health and nutrition on the food labels by the processing industry and on display boards in eateries can provide some relief to the harried citizen.