Labelling: honest and truthful?

March 18, 2019 6:11 am Published by 1 Comment

We’ve been looking at labelling this month – at ingredients and nutritional data and the rules on labelling for allergens and ‘free from’ products. In the UK, rules are strict – stringent – and often, severely expressed. And yet there are still certain loopholes, and a degree of confusion in places. Just possibly, the very severity of our rules has forced manufacturers (and their marketing teams) to become ever more imaginative in the ways in which they try to get their messages across. Can we honestly, truthfully, say that the results are always honest and truthful?

Our labels are honest and truthful - can the same be said for everything we stock?

Bland, but definitely legal

At Naturally Good Food we let our own-brand own-packaged products speak for themselves! Our labels are simple and purely factual. ‘Prunes’, we state blandly. ‘Sunflower seeds organic’. However, we also stock a huge number of properly branded and heavily marketed pre-packaged goods – and the labeling on these is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Rules on labelling

Here are the basic rules, taken from the UK government website.

‘To sell food and drink products, a label must be:

  • clear and easy to read
  • permanent
  • easy to understand
  • easily visible
  • not misleading’

The label must show things such as a best before or use by date, a list of ingredients, contact details of the manufacturer, country of origin (in certain cases), quantity information, storage and cooking information as necessary, and warnings. There are a whole host of warnings, with set phrases to be inserted if a product has been irradiated or packaged using gas, if it contains alcohol or GM ingredients, or if it includes ingredients such as artificial sweeteners or E numbers.

Product labels have to be ‘legal, decent, truthful and honest’, with no ‘false or deceptive messages’. They can’t leave out important information, or use aggressive sales tactics, and if making comparisons, must compare like with like.

Packaging – or wackaging?

Food labels were once all rather dull (rather like our own). But then the marketing people got hold of them. Now, they’re in your face: quirky, zany, amusing, wacky. Oatly oat milk, for instance, is packed with fun. ‘Wow – no cow!’, it exclaims. Warnings? Allergen information? The product is ‘100% cool for vegans’ (the official stuff is all stuck on what it calls ‘The Boring Side’). Do Oatly have a mission statement? They do. We learn that their ‘sole purpose as a company is to make it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process.’. On the back, the company pokes fun at baristas. There’s an aversion to capital letters throughout.

This is ‘wackaging’ – wacky packaging. It’s a label that tries to make a personal connection with each customer, joking around with every single bit of information. It’s not telling any untruths, of course – but it’s working in a highly imaginative way with the truth. The implication is clear: you, the consumer, are a cool kind of person, intelligent and able to take a joke. You’re Oatly’s kind of person – so clearly, you need to buy Oatly’s kind of milk.

Propercorn, which we’ve just started stocking, is another good example. This comes with a personal letter on the back of the packet. ‘My father was a hopeless cook but made the best popcorn…’ it begins, ending with a sign-off from ‘Cassandra’. This isn’t just popcorn – this is popcorn that wants to be your friend.

So just how far can you go down this imaginative route?

You can’t tell fibs about health matters

We stock products that are good for your health. We know they’re good for your health because we’ve read the research surrounding them. We want to tell our customers how healthy they all are (that’s what these blogs are for, of course) and the manufacturers themselves want to do that too. But the rules on health advertising are strict.

Take fibre, for instance. On a food label, you’re allowed to indicate what proportion of fibre you’ll find in a product (in fact, you’re encouraged to do so, in the Nutritional data section). If the level is demonstrably high, you can say that it’s ‘high in fibre’ (EU rules: ‘A claim that a food is high in fibre, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains at least 6 g of fibre per 100 g or at least 3 g of fibre per 100 kcal.’)

You can put entertaining pictures of fibrous things on the front of your packaging, if you like. You can call it ‘fibrelicious!’ – if you want to go that far. You can write a personal message about how much you need fibre in your own diet. But what you can’t do is ‘claim or imply that food can treat, prevent or cure any disease or medical condition’. So the word ‘constipation’ is out.

We sell BonPom’s psyllium husk at Naturally Good Food. This is a product that’s used in various ways, one of the most important being to give extra fibre in a diet and thus combat constipation. BonPom Psyllium Husk says on its label:

‘Your intestine’s friend! Psyllium husk is the husk of the seed of the plantain, Plantago ovata, and is a concentrated source of dietary fibre (80% water soluble fibre), composed mostly of hemicellulose. It is not digested in the small intestine, but partially broken down in the colon, where it acts as a food source for friendly flora. Psyllium acts as a sponge in the intestinal tract, swelling as it absorbs water, toxins and waste material.’

It’s honest, truthful and accurate. And if you’re looking for something to help constipation, the words ‘colon’, ‘dietary fibre’, ‘intestine’, ‘toxins’ and ‘waste material’ are likely to jump out at you. But you’re going to have to read between the lines to understand that this is a product that might alleviate your condition.

Here are the EU rules, if you’re interested.  https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/labelling_nutrition/claims/nutrition_claims_en These regulations cover the terms ‘low fat’, ‘low sugar’, ‘reduced sugar’, ‘fat free’, ‘sugar free’ and so on, as well as giving precise stipulations for what can legally be labelled as ‘a source of x’ or ‘high in x’, including protein, vitamins and minerals, omega fatty acids and unsaturated fat.

If you’re a food manufacturer wanting to make a claim, you’re going to have to do some reading up. Perhaps you’d like to say that your food is high in a particular vitamin? You’ll need to check the following rule:

‘HIGH [NAME OF VITAMIN/S] AND/OR [NAME OF MINERAL/S]

A claim that a food is high in vitamins and/or minerals, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains at least twice the value of ‘source of [NAME OF VITAMIN/S] and/or [NAME OF MINERAL/S]’.

SOURCE OF [NAME OF VITAMIN/S] AND/OR [NAME OF MINERAL/S]

A claim that a food is a source of vitamins and/or minerals, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains at least a significant amount as defined in the Annex to Directive 90/496/EEC or an amount provided for by derogations granted according to Article 6 of Regulation (EC) No 1925/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 December 2006 on the addition of vitamins and minerals and of certain other substances to foods[1].’

And do be careful. The UK government is clear:

‘You must describe your product accurately. This means if you make a claim about your product, you must be able to prove what you say.’

Not on the label

Not all claims are made on the label. Your fibre-rich product may not be able to mention constipation, but a friendly reviewer or blogger might helpfully throw that word into the conversation for you. And words, as everyone knows, are tricky little things. They may seem to say one thing, but imply something else altogether.

Let’s take a last look at another product we stock: Rude Health’s Ultimate Organic Almond Drink.

Its initial description is definitely legal and accurate:

‘Almonds. Water. Nothing else.’

But it’s not quite so straightforward. There’s no need to say ‘Nothing else’, after all: doing so makes it quite clear that in the eyes of the manufacturer, this short list of ingredients is a very good thing. The product, we deduce, is simple, pure and clean. (But not one of those words has been written down.)

On the back the packaging reads:

‘Eat right. Stay brilliant’.

To ‘stay brilliant’, you must already be brilliant – already healthy, already ‘right’. The message is clear: healthy, right-thinking, sensible people buy this product. (But not one of those words has been written down.)

The packaging continues:

‘At Rude Health we only use the kind of ingredients you’d have in your own kitchen – nothing artificial, nothing refined.’

The tone is ‘mate-y’ – they know what you’ve got in your kitchen and naturally, it’s a kitchen full of the right sort of stuff. And it’s your own kitchen, isn’t it – not a shared kitchen, or your parents’ kitchen? You’re a sensible, right-thinking, mature and pretty successful kind of person – and those kinds of people buy this kind of product. (But not one of those words has been written down.)

What else?

‘We source our ingredients from fields, orchards and vines – not laboratories….We think food should be made out of food – not thickeners, preservatives, colourings, flavourings and other additives.’

This product is clean. It’s natural. It’s pure. They think that and they know we’ll agree, because we’re the kind of sensible, successful people who value the pure and natural too. But they don’t, of course, actually say any of these things – not in so many words, anyway.

 

Thus marketing information on labels is rather like poetry – words mean things they don’t say and messages are communicated without ever actually being spoken. It’s why there will always be work for advertising and marketing writers – and equally, why there’ll always be work for those who work in advertising regulation. BonPom, Oatly, Propercorn and Rude Health are perfectly legal – but some other products sail very close to the wind.

It’s also why even just the act of picking up a carton or package requires work from the customer too. If you’re looking – as we are – for products that are honestly, truthfully healthy, you need to use your eyes and your brain.

Naturally Good Reads v2

 

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This post was written by Yzanne

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