What the World Sees in a Food Label

By Leah – December 30, 2011

We may take for granted that the rest of the world looks at everyday things the way Americans do but, as any traveler knows, that’s not necessarily the case. What says more about everyday life than a trip to the grocery store? Products you see on the shelves and the information on packages are both influenced by the country where the product is marketed. That trip to the grocery store can reveal surprising differences due to wide variances in cultures and in political and market conditions from one country to another.

The European Union (EU), comprised of 27 member countries, has hotly debated what they’ve termed “traffic light” food labeling. In this system, packaged foods would receive a graphic labeling similar to the universal traffic light (red, yellow, green) rating foods in four categories (fats, saturated fats, sugar, and salt). Green signified “low,” so 3-4 green segments on a package meant that was a healthier choice. Yellow (or amber) denoted medium, so a food with mostly yellow segments is okay to eat most of the time. Red, however, showed “high” levels; foods with mostly red segments are foods to eat sparingly.

The United Kingdom (U.K.) has used this system for several years. The concept is supported by an Australian study. This group of researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakins University found that front-of-the-pack traffic light labeling resulted in reduced mean weight among group study participants and was both effective and cost saving. The study stated that using the graphics to label food was “…likely to offer excellent ‘value for money’ as an obesity prevention measure.’” The system seemed especially effective with lower socio-economic groups. Poor people in the U.K. are six times more likely to die early from cardio-vascular diseases than are more affluent people; smoking, lack of exercise, and diet are the three primary contributing factors. European shoppers don’t typically look at nutritional labels (only 17 percent actually read them, and when quizzed, 84 percent of French consumers couldn’t explain what a carbohydrate was). The Australian study found that people are five times more likely to identify healthy food options with color-coded labels.

The pushback to applying this concept in the EU was intense. Interestingly, the United States came up in the discussion. WHO 2006 figures show U.S. obesity rates at 32 perccent, while in Italy rates are at 10 percent, and at 24 percent and rising in the U.K. European politicians pointed at the U.S. as a bad example and Renate Sommer, parliamentarian from German’s Christian Democratic Union party, piled on, “the more you label, the less people read. The U.S. has more and more food labeling, but obesity rates keep rising. We should learn from their mistakes.” This fear of information overload and confusion from yet another labeling change led the EU’s traffic-light vote to failure. The EU opted to stay with a mandatory “nutrition declaration,” a label with several nutrients listed (calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, sugars, and salt) in amounts of 100 grams or 100 milliliters; the per-portion amount and percentages are voluntary supplied by the manufacturer but are not mandatory. The EU backed a proposal from the environmental committee for mandatory labeling to show the origin of meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products, (it was already mandatory to show where beef, honey, olive oil, and fresh fruits and vegetables came from). Also, the EU-backed mandatory labels for appetite-enhancing substances (which includes trans-fats), and information on sweeteners must be included on the front of packages.

As reflected in the European stance towards American labels, attitudes towards food vary by culture. Much of national identity is tied up into foods we eat, how we cook them, and the role food plays in life. Most major holidays have foods associated with celebrating those special days.

While every group treasures its food traditions, different cultures approach food in different ways. According to studies, consumers in North Africa, the EU, and Asia are all conscious of the link between food and health, though how exactly that is expressed varies. In the U.S., more than half of consumers say that diet is an important part of health. In Canada, most consumers agree that good health is their primary reasoning behind food selections. In Asia, Canada, and the U.S., price and convenience are also very important factors, and more food is eaten outside the home in these areas than in other parts of the world.

While most countries have some sort of packaged food labeling, the labels themselves vary as much as the consumers’ use of the information. The U.S. has some of the most comprehensive information, though shoppers don’t often use it effectively. A whopping 89 percent of Americans incorrectly estimate their daily caloric needs—in fact, 31 percent can’t even guess at what the number should be. In Asia, a popular misconception is that local or traditional foods are always lower in calories than “Western” and “out-of-home” foods. The most influential items on a label for Asian shoppers are claims regarding nutritional analysis (“Studies show that…”) and third-party endorsements (“Dr. So-and-So recommends….).

The different cultural approaches to food were brought into clear focus by the book “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.” Photographers Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio travelled around the world and photographed what 30 families in 24 different countries ate in a week. The photos show each family surrounded by all of the actual items purchased for that week. Packaged food is more prominent in the industrialized countries’ diets and eventually becomes the main staple. The poorer the nation, the more natural the food is (and the smaller the amount of it).

A current global “hot topic” concerning food and food labeling is genetically-modified organisms (GMO). In an effort to address the food crisis in East Africa, several countries have begun to consider GMOs as a method for producing more food. The U.S. led with 68 percent of the market in 2000, with Argentina next at 23 percent, Canada (7 percent) and China (1 percent) following. In fact, the U.S. and Argentina alone devoted 99 million acres to GMO crops—that’s an area bigger than the land mass of the U.K. Not every country sees GMOs as the solution, or even a positive development. Japan now has mandatory health testing for GMOs; Europe has mandatory labeling and established a 1 percent threshold for GMO contamination. Because the primary GMOs have been soybeans and corn, it’s very easy for items with GMOs to be combined with other ingredients without the consumer’s knowledge. Because soy-based additives are so prevalent in U.S. packaged food, virtually all American consumers have unknowingly been exposed to GMOs in their diet.

India took a hard stance when the first GMO for cultivation, the Bt-brinjal, came up for approval. “Brinjal” is the Indian word for eggplant; it is native to India and a favorite ingredient in traditional cuisine. One variety even has important religious significance. While GMO soya and corn have been used widely as commercial cattle feed in the U.S., Bt-brinjal would have been the first seed to be cultivated directly for human consumption. The rational was that India, with its large population, could benefit from a crop that had been altered to be more disease resistant and prolific. However, the people protested due to questions about safety . The Indian Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) allowed commercial release of Bt-brinjal, but the protests in 2009 resulted in public discussions and election. No testing had been done to determine if consumption of this GMO was hazardous to human health. No system for labeling GMO food existed in India, leaving consumers without a way to determine what exactly they were eating. In 2010, India announced a ban on cultivating Bt-brinjal (Brazil also has banned GMO crops). Prime Minister Bhargava explained the decision: “To begin with, we do not need GM crops to feed India’s one billion plus people. We can feed two billion or more people simply by raising food productivity, which is comparatively low in the country.”

American-based Monsanto, the company that owns the patent for Bt-brinjal as well as a majority share of the Indian company, Mahyco, which markets the Bt-brinjal seeds, selected the beloved local plant in an effort to ease the introduction of the GMO crop into a large market. But the Indian people loved the food they grew up with, and few welcomed changes to a food that makes up such a large and significant portion of their life and culture. Arguably all people, regardless of nationality, prefer the freedom to make conscious choices about the foods and food products they put on their tables for their families, their friends, their celebrations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on healthy food choices. Our goal is to help decipher some of the marketing language and tricks used to promote a food as “healthy” as well as demystify both new and established tenets of healthy eating. Paired with each article in the series is a healthy revision of a well-known (and not-so-healthy) dish—a Recipe Redux.


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