Sugar labelling options for food packaging – Expert Reaction

The Trans-Tasman body responsible for food regulation policy is asking for public feedback on possible labelling rules for sugars on packaged foods and drinks for sale in New Zealand and Australia. 

Seven options are being considered, which are not mutually exclusive:
1. Status quo
2. Education on how to read and interpret labelling information about sugars
3. Change the statement of ingredients to overtly identify sugars-based ingredients
4. Added sugars quantified in the nutrition information panel (NIP)
5. Advisory labels for foods high in added sugar
6. Pictorial display of the amount of sugars and/or added sugars in a serving of food
7. Digital linking to off label web-based information about added sugar content.

More information is available here.

The Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction on the options. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu, National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), University of Auckland, comments:

“Added sugars are a major contributing factor to spiralling rates of obesity and tooth decay. About half of New Zealand adults exceed the World Health Organization guideline for added sugars intake, and as many as three in four younger adults exceed the recommendation. So it is timely and opportune to have this consultation on sugar content labelling.

“Of the proposed options I support as a priority:

  • Added sugars quantified in the nutrition information panel (NIP)
  • Improvements to the way sugar is presented in ingredients list, specifically grouping of added sugars

“Current food labels mean it is impossible for consumers to distinguish between added and natural sugars, or understand just how much added sugar is in some core foods like yoghurts and breakfast cereals. These changes to labels would improve transparency and may incentivise food manufacturers to reduce the added sugar content of their products.

“I also support advisory (warning) labels for foods high in sugar, particularly sugar-sweetened drinks. Research has shown that advisory labels are one of the most impactful labelling information formats.

“However sugar is not the only nutrient of concern in the New Zealand diet and options chosen need to work with the Health Star Rating (HSR) which rates foods on their overall nutrient content and considers other nutrients of concern too. Better information on added sugars on labels could be used to strengthen the HSR. Research has shown that incorporating added sugars improves the performance of the HSR and increases its alignment with dietary guidelines.

“Food labels are not however a silver bullet to better diets. Better labelling will help New Zealanders make more informed choices in support of dietary guidelines, but government and industry need to step up and play their part too. The New Zealand government should follow the example of the structured food reformulation programmes that are underway in Australia and the UK and set clear targets and maximum thresholds for the nutrient content of packaged foods and drinks, including added sugars.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of the New Zealand Health Star Rating Advisory Group. Views expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of the Advisory Group.

Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health, AUT, and Chief Health and Nutrition Advisor, Ministry of Education comments:

“For the sugar labelling I advocate for front of pack, mandatory labelling of all free sugars in a packaged product. That would ideally be in teaspoons pictures on the front, with a big number (grams of free sugars) as well. That is option 6, nothing else will have any (positive) effect.

“People will argue that it should just be added sugars but the body doesn’t discriminate between what is in the food before processing and what is added – it’s all sugar.

“The Health Star rating is already dead in the water. The algorithm is flawed in the combination of fat, salt and sugar. The food industry brought this to us, we were suckered in. Perversely, very high sugar foods can get 4+ health stars.

“The voluntary nature and the food industry driven labelling are a problem. It’s also just misleading. It’s sugar we need out of our food so let’s just concentrate on that and make it obvious. We need to remove this from the food industry’s discretion.”

Conflict of interest statement: Author of diet-related books: What The Fat?What the Fast!, and What The Fat? Sports Performance 

Owen Young, Professor of Food Science, AUT, comments:
Note: Owen co-authored a paper exploring a graphic equivalent to nutritional tables. The abstract is here: contact us for the paper.  

“The panels as [currently] presented on packs are frequently exercises in obfuscation. That’s no way to educate.

“Fonts and colours are often confusing, and hide the nature of foods. I would favour a panel where all the following was mandated: a panel with constant rectangular dimensions; a lower area limit to ensure legibility, and size subsequently increasing with pack size to an upper area limit; a white background with black standard font of a size proportional to panel area; three columns and no more (nutrient, per 100 g/mL, per serve).

“All other claims for vitamins, and classes of unsaturated fats, etc, cannot be on that mandated table.  Additional tables are OK if wanted, but don’t mess with the mandated panel.

“This would show up sugars and other mandated nutrients clearly, but it is highly unlikely that table format for the mandated [nutritional information] panel will change anytime soon. So, of the 7 options, I favour variants of 2 (education), 6 (pictorial display), and (digital linking).
“The concept of linking bar codes to information (graphic I hope) shows the way forward.  This has to be the way to go because ‘real estate’ on a device is unlimited, unlike on a pack. Any tap of the screen can show a new field of information.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have an interest in seeing our novel nutrition information graphic used on food packets and websites.

Simon Thornley, Senior Lecturer and Epidemiologist, University of Auckland, and Spokesperson for FIZZ, comments:

“I think there is a desperate need for consumers to understand the sugar content of foods – particularly those that are often thought to be ‘healthy’, such as fruit juices and breakfast cereals.”My preference would be for option 6, with graphic displays of the total number of teaspoons of sugar in the product.

“This could then be accompanied by public health messages to limit daily intake of sugar to World Health Organisation of American Heart Association limits of less than nine teaspoons per day for adult males and six for adult females. The equivalent for children varies with age, but is roughly less than three per day. The exact definition of what is considered ‘sugar’ is difficult, but my preference is for fructose-containing sugar, such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fructose to be included. Products containing dehydrated or concentrated fruit would also be included.

“This is the sugar that is considered to be most harmful from a physiological point-of-view. Current definitions of intrinsic or added sugar are confusing. Sugars that are naturally present in dairy products (that are glucose-based) should be exempt.”

No conflict of interest.