Battling Obesity - A New Food Labeling Norm

Sat, 09/05/2015 - 12:33

Food labels, with complicated ingredients lists and nutritional value tables, can often read more like a scientific experiment than a meal. New NOM 51 norm on food labelling in Mexico aims to bring some control and a deeper understanding to consumer level.

A study by Nielsen found that almost half of Mexicans admitted to not understanding food nutrition labels. The survey was conducted online, which inducates that the demographic interviewed were more likely to have a higher level of education and have computer access. Respondents reported that they found that claims made on labels such as “0 calories,” “0% fat” and “all natural” to be rarely ever completely true.

The norm focuses on standardizing labelling, specifying how and where information should appear on packaging, mandating that portion size is specified. The norm, a modification on NOM-051-SCFI/SSA1-2010, ensures that nutritional information is clearly visible at the front of the packaging in standardized language, format, and measurements. The changes are intended to clarify ambiguous information on packaging, such as differentiating between a “family size” pack and an “individual” portion. By standardizing the format of the information, the aim is that customers will become familiar with interpreting the figures in the same manner, making the labels more easily understandable. In addition, COFEPRIS has launched new guidelines regarding limitation of TV advertising of products with high caloric content. It is estimated that 40% of advertisements for “unhealthy foods” such as soda, confectionary, and fast food, will be removed from screens to be replaced with products which have a caloric content meeting the requirements of the norm. The rules place timeframes on adverts for high calorie products, allowing them to be screened when children are less likely to be watching television and thus targeting childhood obesity in a very direct way.

In terms of the industry, it may not be that welcoming of the new norm. Findings by Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood have concluded that companies spend about US$17 billion annually marketing to children and children under 14 spend about US$40 billion annually, with teens spending around US$159 billion per year.

Consumer advocates have also criticized the norm to an extent, claiming that it does not go far enough to stop the ambiguous labelling practices companies tend to employ. When a product is labelled, the portion size is stated in small writing at the top of nutritional labels, and the majority of the time the “portion size” only reflects a small percentage of the contents of the package. This can be misleading as consumers are likely to assume that the nutritional information refers to the whole package.

Finally, claims such as “all natural” and “low fat” could be substantiated by research and not be misleading to customers. Foods branded as “light” or “lite” do not have an official legal definition, and therefore it is possible for companies to use the terms on their packaging without having to back up their claims. The claim “no added sugar” can often be ambiguous, particularly with fruit-derived products as there tends to be high levels of naturally-occurring sugar. Also, when claims of “no added sugar” are made, this can mean that other sugar substitutes have been added instead, such as controversial high fructose corn syrup. Even though the norm has tackled a big issue with Mexican advertising regulations, it is arguable that there is still a way to go in order to homogenize food labelling to an understandable standard.