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Consumption of food: responsibility of the state?

In May 2004 The House of Commons Health Select Committee (United Kingdom) published their findings on the Third Health Report (obesity). The 10 recommendations listed below are a précis of  our original contributions to this enquiry:

Idea No.1 Regulation:

The State should consider providing the same consumer protection on matters concerning food, as it does on matters concerning money.  There could be a regulatory and supervisory body similar in principle to the Financial Services Authority and supported by similar legislation. The risk to public health of "miss-selling" will arguably be greater in the long-term. If individuals are to be held responsible for their own health, they are surely entitled to the same regulatory support that helps determines their own wealth.

Idea No.2 Look-up tables for fundamental foods:

Despite hundreds and thousands of food-choices, there are less than 300 common foods that make up the main ingredients [and these are then subject to the 80: 20 rule]. Consumers need a good understanding of the main nutritional values of these fundamental foods. They should provide the benchmark for all healthy-food selection. Look-up tables could be produced from the data sets maintained by the UK National Nutrient Databank. Such a table would fit onto an A4 sheet size, and could be printed in small type for a wallet-size version, or in large type for the partially sighted. These look-up tables would be available at supermarkets, restaurants and surgeries. They would be produced under the authority and control of the Foods Standards Agency and if necessary funded by advertising. This look-up table of fundamental foods could be seen as the "ABC" of basic nutrition knowledge.

Idea No.3 Three-digit codes for fundamental foods:

Applying a three-digit identifying code to all fundamentals foods will enable consumers to access more detailed nutrition information on that food-item, both for the in-depth range of nutrient data-sets, and as a cross reference to other data-sets held on sub-types or other related types. The UK National Nutrient Databank maintains these data-sets. Information will be obtained by mobile phone, palm or PC internet access, or from a printed manual.

This simple system could be also adapted to enable restaurants to produce nutrition values for meal menus.

It should be noted that information from the UK National Nutrient Databank is only available on a commercial basis, whereas the US equivalent is available free of change to all users and in all formats.

Idea No.4 Simplify food-labelling

The current method of food labelling is science-led, not customer led. Absolute-number values are always quoted, although the data will invariably be based on averages. In some cases the margin of error can be considerable. Absolute values could be removed or, if deemed necessary, reduced to a small-text narrative. The panel area can then be converted to display the important information in a more user-friendly form, and express the values in simplified band-ranges. With agreed national standards, it will be possible to adopt traffic-light systems and apply the principles of "unit" counting successfully introduced by the slimming clubs.

Idea No.5  Use common calorie values for fat, protein and carbs:

Label information could focus on presenting the nutrition values of fat protein and carbohydrates and express these as %calorie values, not the current %weight values. This makes sense as these % calorie values combine into the total calories for the food-item. The important health balance between these 3 macronutrients is easier to understand using common values.

Idea No.6 Health check panel:

The current practise [for most labelling] of sub-listing sugar and saturated fat values is confusing. Therefore all nutrition values that have specific health implications [outside the energy balance values] could be shown under a separate health-check panel. This would show the negatives of: salt, sugars, sat-fats and risk ingredients - and the positives of fibre, "5-a-day", or others.

Idea No.7 Food category labelling:

The single standard that has been adopted for labelling is unnecessary. Therefore separate agreed patterns could be adopted for different food categories, to allow more pertinent information to be highlighted e.g. levels of "good fats" in fish products or levels of vitamin C in fruit products. Other product related nutrients such as cholesterol, carotenes etc ought to be considered. In other words the label should be designed to fit the food-type.

Idea No. 8 Access-for-all

If all consumers are to receive best advice from food labels, and particularly if there is to be equal access to that advice for the disabled [particularly the blind the partially sighted and those with learning difficulties] there has to be a way of projecting that information and translating into a wholly accessible form. In reality this can only be achieved by a national database of all foods using the product bar code as the locator. As all coded foods already have to be subjected to nutrient analysis, that process can be standardised and codified in a form to populate the database. Food-items can be then scanned in-store or at home to open up nutrition values, in a choice of audio or visual formats. 

Idea No. 9 Nutrition information on shelves

Food retailers could be encouraged to provide generalised or summary nutrition values for each product-aisle, using posters or shelf stickers to display some form of comparison list, or exceptions outside the norm. Consumers then have the option to choose on a quick nutrition check rather than rely solely on product labels.

Idea No 10 Engaging with young people

If young people, in particular, are to be engaged in healthy eating options the most appealing medium will be through mobile phone communications. There are many obvious applications for such interactivity. All will depend on the infrastructure of a national database of all food items. This is relatively easy to do using the barcode system, but requires a clear direction from government if it is to be delivered.

Submission to the House of Commons Health Committee - 10 ideas  
Presented by Mike Allott: Consensus Software / Corporata  February 2004