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Packaging - nutritional values

Consumers may feel helpless when they read the nutritional values on the packaging of processed food, as they are far from straightforward. That is if they are even mentioned. National food labelling regulations were introduced in the late 20th century, to raise consumer awareness and guide consumer choice, in view of an alarming increase in diseases linked to diet.
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© Food and Drug Administration - Example of American Nutrition Facts panel listing of nutritive values, 2005

The Tower of Babel of nutritional information

Today’s consumer is faced with a huge variety of complex industrially refined and processed food and can easily get lost in what appears to be a Tower of Babel of nutritional information. For a long time, nutritional values were not shown on packaging but, following an alarming increase in diseases linked to deficiencies in or overconsumption of certain types of food in industrialised countries in the late 20th century, labelling systems were set up, often as part of national health promotion programmes.

An overview of labelling standards

The Codex Alimentarius was developed in 1961, a joint project of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to establish general international standards for the labelling of pre-packaged food. The list of nutritional elements is generally presented in a table showing the values by weight per serving. However, various kinds of labelling coexist nowadays, dependent on national policies on the subject.

In 1990 in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a stringent guide for the American agro-food industry, covering everything from the nutritional elements which must be mentioned to the type and size of font depending on the kind of packaging. However, these rules do not apply to meat or alcoholic drinks, which depend on other governmental bodies.

In 2003 in Japan, the Ministry of Public Health tried to promote nutritional value labelling for processed food. Labelling remained optional but, if the producer chose to display nutritional values, the following elements had to be indicated: calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, sodium, vitamins and minerals. It was not until 2015 that a law made this labelling mandatory and standardised the format. There are seven categories of food which are exempt from labelling in Japan:

- food with very few or no nutritional qualities (water, spices)

- ingredients used to produce other foodstuffs

- spirits

- food whose packaging is too small for a label

- food whose recipes change regularly

- food consumed at the place where it is processed

- food used for school or hospital meals

In Switzerland, the first version of the law determining every aspect of food labelling dates from 2005. Nutritional labelling is optional, except in cases where the nutritional properties of the food are emphasised, either on the packaging or in the advertising for the product. However, the energy value and the quantity of each nutrient must be indicated. The Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs Office (FSVO) had already launched the nationwide Food Composition Database in 2002. It provides information about the composition of food available in shops in Switzerland. It is free of charge and regularly updated and can be either downloaded or viewed online. To date, it includes over 10 000 foodstuffs, including meat, fresh vegetables and alcoholic drinks.

In the European Union, declaring nutritional information becomes mandatory on packaging from 13 December 2016. The regulations place great emphasis on the label being easy to read, recommending the use of generic terms instead of ‘scientific’ ones, using the word ‘salt’ instead of ‘sodium’, for example.