Shoppers reaching for a sweet, refreshing bottle of soft drink may soon find themselves confronted by the sour reality of 33 small icons of teaspoons – equivalent to the average sugar content of 1.25 litres of soft drink ( see here). The Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (Forum) recently announced a review of nutrition labelling for sugar, on the basis that information presently available on packaged foods and drinks does not sufficiently enable consumers to make informed choices.
Two particular proposals were highlighted in the communique released by the Forum, which is comprised of state and federal Australian and New Zealand health ministers.
Firstly, overt identification of "added sugar" in the nutritional informational panel of food and beverage products. The Forum noted that, "the option to quantify added sugars in the nutritional panel best met the desired outcome" of the prospective review. This emphasis on "added sugar" is in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines and its international counterparts, which strongly recommend limiting consumption of foods with added sugars, due to their contribution to dental decay, unhealthy weight gain, and associated cardiovascular and kidney diseases ( see here). Current food and beverage labelling requirements (as prescribed by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code) only dictate that product ingredients are listed by a name sufficient to indicate their true nature, and also that total sugar content is displayed, without distinguishing between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars. The kind and quantity of sugar-based ingredients is therefore easily obscured on labels under an extensive range of aliases, such as muscovado, panela, rapadura, dextrose and isoglucose.
The Forum's second recommendation is aimed at clarifying the amount of added sugar through visual representation. In this regard, the Forum "agreed that a pictorial approach applied to sugary beverages/sugar-sweetened beverages warrants further consideration", for example, by depicting sugar content through images of teaspoons or sugar cubes. This shift to common symbols combats low consumer literary of nutritional labels, which requires consumers to interpret numerical information, tabular formats and technical names for different sugars, and is especially challenging for children.
If implemented, these changes will likely be a bitter pill to swallow for many stakeholders in the food and beverages industry. For example, the Australian Beverages Council, which represents 90% of the non-alcoholic beverages industry, cautiously supports the quantification of added sugar "if introduced with care", and based on a carefully circumscribed definition of "sugars". However, the Council categorically opposes a pictorial approach to conveying sugar content, citing limitations of label space and the financial and resource considerations of overhauling all existing labels in line with new rules.
One thing is for sure – those involved in the production, supply and retail of sweetened products to the Australian consumer market should brace themselves for more packaging and labelling changes in the near future. A balance should be struck between revising labelling requirements to enhance the health of the Australian public, and providing commercial certainty for businesses, who must drastically retool and redesign their products and manufacturing processes with every shift in the regulatory regime. For now, watch this space.
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