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Why SA’s food labels need to change – HEALA

Amandla.Mobi continues fight for change in food labels
Government must stand up to food and beverage industry (Photo: Freepik)
Written by Lilita Gcwabe

As more South Africans succumb to non-communicable diseases, the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) has called on the health department to finalise the regulations relating to front of package food labels.

Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are on the rise with ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fats at the root of the problem.

HEALA’s Angelika Grimbeek said that the organisation is trying to push the National Department of Health to publish the regulations relating to different food products in the country. Currently, there is only a draft of these regulations.

The Nutrition Programme Manager hopes their “What’s in our food” campaign encourages consumers to question the ingredients found in prepackaged foods. 

“There’s often a direct link between eating a lot of those foods and then developing the diseases. The front package warning label will help the consumer become informed,” said Grimbeek. 

She said HEALA wants the department to speed up the process of releasing the regulations.

Reasons behind poor food selection

South Africa has one of the highest prevalence rates of diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa.  According to the NCD Countdown, people living in SA have a 51.9% chance of dying from diabetes, heart disease or stroke.

When shown images of foods with warning labels, parents indicated that they would buy fewer foods high in nutrients of concern that were labelled as “high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat” and switch to non-labelled, healthier, foods. 

This is according to an investigation by researchers from the University of Limpopo, the University of Western Cape, and the University of North Carolina in the United States on parents’ food purchasing decisions and perceptions of unhealthy food. 

The researchers noted that poor nutrition knowledge and affordability surfaced as one of the leading influencers of parental food selection.

It also showed that there was a lack of knowledge among parents and caregivers who were the main decision-makers when purchasing food for children. Some consumers who were aware of nutrition-related issues, also quickly became discouraged when attempting to read food labels.

What kind of food will have a warning label? 

Grimbeek referred to a survey that evaluated the different packaged foods and beverages in SA. The survey found that 76% of foods in the country are ultra-processed. 

Ultra-processed foods are especially bad for our health because they are formulated through an industrial process, resulting in products that are far away from the original products. 

“The natural ingredient is almost unrecognisable because so many additives have been put in,” said Grimbeek.

She continued: “The published regulations will explain the different thresholds and how much of these nutrients of concern are acceptable.”

Grimbeek explained that warning labels won’t be found on a bag of apples because nothing has been added to them. Whereas a packet of chips will have labels because there’s a lot of saturated fat added to a serving.  

How will front package warning labels help?

Front package warnings will provide consumers with visible information about what is in the food. 

 The words “HIGH IN” on the front-of-pack warning labels, which clearly identify products that are high in ingredients like sugar, salt, and saturated fat, would help consumers easily spot unhealthy foods. 

Why SA's food labels need to change - HEALA

The majority of food items on our shelves contain dangerously high amounts of sugar, salt and fat. (Photo: Supplied)

“Trying to understand the labels at the back of food packages is difficult to do. There are so many strange and scientific words and tables on these labels. Consumers also have to do calculations to understand package size and what the serving size is. This can be extremely confusing,” said Grimbeek.

Grimbeek said that people aren’t able to comprehend the current labels because they were too scientific.

“The new types of package warning labels will be very clear and will be placed on the front. This will underline the unhealthy options,” she said. 

What can you do? 

Easy-to-read front-of-pack warning labels can help consumers make better health choices. 

HEALA is calling upon concerned parents, caregivers, and ordinary citizens to join their call by signing this petition

Head of HEALA Programmes, Nzalama Mbalati, said that addressing NCD needs legislative, regulatory, and other measures to help save lives. 

“South Africa needs front-of-package labelling to help consumers make better choices and live healthier lives,” she said. – Health-e News 

About the author

Lilita Gcwabe

Lilita is a multimedia journalist with an interest in rural advancement in the health and agricultural sectors. She’s committed to reporting on social justice, and early childhood development. Lilita believe in the power of representation, as an essential means of rewriting our stories.

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