Wed | Dec 8, 2021

Antoya G. Cassells | Front-of-package labelling: Are we there yet?

Published:Thursday | May 6, 2021 | 12:06 AM
Antoya Cassells
Antoya Cassells
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With the world facing an epidemic of overweight/obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), nutritional information and other health-related information and their places on food labels are of growing importance. Providing these in a concise yet clear manner is the difference between life and death. COVID-19 has changed the way we live, our health, and the foods we eat and have access to. As a consumer, one needs to make wise choices about the food we eat. This is where food labels come in. It is well established that food labels, specifically nutrition labels, provide vital information about the nutrients in food. Given this fact, it is concerning that nutritional labelling is not mandatory for all foods in Jamaica. Consumers need this information to be able to make informed decisions about the food they eat, especially if the nutritional information are placed on the front of beverages and packaged-food labels.

Front-of-package-labelling (FOPL) is a system that presents key nutritional information on the front of beverages and foods that are packaged, of course, in a format that is easily understood by consumers. The World Health Organization (WHO) first proposed FOPL as a policy measure to improve diet and health in 2004. Since then, the WHO has consistently promoted FOPL as an effective means to improve the choices consumers make as it relates to their diet and overall health.

Front-of-package-labelling is one of the key components of the many strategies promoting healthy lifestyle practices that have been implemented by countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico. One professor of public health and health systems at the University of Waterloo in Canada stated in an article that “labels should feature images that are simple and intuitive. This ensures that they are noticed and understood at a glance”.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IMPLEMENTING SUCH POLICY IN JAMAICA?

Introduction of FOPL in Jamaica may prove to have long-standing positive effects on consumers, especially those who are suffering from varied NCDs. Additionally, those living with NCDs are at a greater risk of serious illness and possible death if they contract COVID-19. This, with such negative attributes affiliated with it, has made it even more important for FOPL to be implemented in Jamaica as a way of protecting consumers and retailers alike.

Local stakeholders have made strides in sensitising the public and making consumers more aware of what front-of-package-labelling is. One such important stakeholder is The Heart Foundation of Jamaica, who, over the past couple of years, has been advocating for FOPL to be implemented in Jamaica. Another important stakeholder that must be mentioned is the Bureau of Standards Jamaica, as the Government moves towards making front-of-package labelling a requisite policy. Establishing a FOPL policy can be a driving force behind aligning with the Ministry of Health and Wellness’ (MOHW) mandate which is ‘to ensure the provision of quality health services and to promote healthy lifestyles and environmental practices’. But, to make this a possibility and to capitalise on its potential, the public must be made aware of what front-of-package labelling is, how important it is to them as consumers, the benefits to their health, and how this policy can help them to keep the MOHW’s ‘Healthy People, Healthy Environment’ vision alive. This will also require sparking conversations with the most important stakeholders, with the aim of helping consumers to make more informed choices as to what they eat and drink.

BENEFITS OF FRONT-OF-PACKAGE LABELLING

1. Jamaica, among other countries, has seen a significant increase in obesity, diabetes and hypertension over the last couple of years. Providing a means to reduce these diseases is always welcomed. Front-of-package labelling will in turn aid in helping to guide customers to not just make more informed nutritional choices, but also to give them a choice between healthy and less healthy options. Consuming healthier foods will create a dent in the cases of aforementioned NCDs.

2. Placing the nutritional information on the front of the label will highlight the importance of consuming healthy foods and having healthier food intake options. Protecting the population and public interest as well as providing healthier alternatives are two of the main, or even most important, objectives of any FOPL system.

3. Improved quality of life. The fact is, eating healthily, exercising regularly and getting regular check-ups are key components for an improved quality of life. Making this possible through food labels will prove to have long-lasting effects on families and the economy.

Finally, with the provision of simpler nutritional information in a salient format, FOPL will help consumers identify the options that are better for their health and to avoid alternatives that may cause problems when consumed in excess, this according to the Institute of Medicine (2010). Existing research shows that implementation of this system will indeed help consumers to make more informed choices. In fact, recent research conducted by the Pan American Health Organization has shown that front-of- package octagonal warning labels that show when food products are high in fats, salt and sugar, such as those used in Chile, are most effective in Jamaica.

Jamaica has a long way to go in making sure that this system works in the same way, or better, than other countries. This, however, can only be made possible by taking the first step to implement FOPL and through consistent public education and sensitisation. Any heath policy that promotes a healthier population has the potential to be a driving force in making Jamaica the place of choice ‘to live, work, raise families and do business,’ and also in making sure that the public’s best interest is at heart. This change is inevitable and necessary. If more and more companies are changing their packaging and content to appeal more to consumers and to provide them with information that allows them to make healthier choices, their competitors will need to be creative enough to keep up. Front-of-package labelling is the future of food policy and food packaging and labelling. So, with such obvious benefits to the Jamaican population, why aren’t we there yet?

Antoya G. Cassells is a health advocate and freelance writer. Send feedback to ghapjm@gmail.com.