Nutrition and health labelling


Adequate human nutrition requires the regular intake of around fifty different components of foods, split between the macronutrients, the micronutrients and water. Our requirements for these nutrients vary considerably by gender, age, lifestyle, physical activity, environment and genotype, meaning that the appropriate dietary choices throughout life are really important for normal physiological function and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. On the other hand, the physiological consequences of making poor dietary choices can be severe, leading to an increased risk of nutrient deficiency and chronic disease. For the food or drink manufacturer, the issue of labelling food and drink products is therefore not one simply of compliance with regulations, but can be viewed as the best (and in some cases only) opportunity to convey the composition of the product, the relevance of the product composition to daily nutrient requirements, and (in some cases) the benefits to health that are associated with consuming a particular component of the food or drink. This paper considers how nutritional information conveyed on pack fits into the context of the nutritional knowledge and requirements of the consumer, how nutritional information is selected and gathered for a declaration, and ultimately how best to communicate the nutritional content of a product to the consumer.

What does the consumer need to know?

When choosing what messages to communicate to the consumer, it's important to consider the baseline of nutritional understanding. Particular elements of the link between dietary choices and health are becoming increasingly familiar to the European consumer, a generalism that is typified by the popular trends of 'calorie-counting' and 'superfoods'. Despite this, it is fair to suggest that a balanced, evidence-led understanding of basic nutritional requirements is still far from being universal amongst European consumers. To correct for this, various tools have been designed to guide satisfactory food choices without the need for detailed nutritional knowledge, the foremost of which are the visual food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) in Europe. In the UK, this takes the form of a round 'eat-well plate' in the UK, visually divided into broad food groups (such as 'milk and dairy foods') and sized according to their advised proportion of the diet. The common use of this approach is testament to its ability to build on the existing food knowledge of the consumer (i.e. a basic knowledge of food groups) to guide food choice. One negative aspect of this approach is that using food groups also deliberately but perhaps counter-productively simplifies the detail of dietary choices when it comes to nutritional requirements.

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