Seeing through labelling transparency
“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” It’s an adage presented by Einstein in a famous 1933 lecture on the method of theoretical physics. For us non physicists, a paraphrased version is “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Kind of ironic in its own way!
No doubt most readers have heard the argument that current Canadian food labels are woefully inadequate. Some are as bold as suggesting this is the root cause of all societies’ current ailments, with obesity as its current poster child. Into this conversation is tossed the phrase “label transparency” and the lack thereof, suggesting there is something deliberately hidden or secret.
The focus of transparency is often aimed at what is missing. To some extent there is truth there. However, and despite some very entertaining conspiracy theories, this is not the cause of any “maleficent” organization. It is largely history rendering certain labelling practices vestigial. For instance, it is not uncommon to see the collective term “colour” used in an ingredient list to describe one or more permitted food colours. The regulated provision to use the collective term “colour” has been around since the early part of the 1970s. Things were certainly different back then, but it was, after all, simple and efficient.
Forward more than 40 years and today’s expectations are certainly no longer in alignment with such simple transparency. In 2015 Canada proposed to amend ingredient labelling regulations such that the identity of the individual common name for a colour additive would need to be identified. No longer then would the term “colour” alone be permitted.
Perhaps one of the more paradoxical aspects of the contemporary idea of transparency in food labelling is that label information can literally be transparent. Such invisible transparency happens when looking straight through information without recognition of its significance. Much focus these days is placed on the amount of sugars in foods. Canada phased in mandatory nutrition labelling in 2005 and 2007, which includes sugars. This accounts for mono and disaccharides from added forms as well as those naturally occurring. The health implications related to sugar is a factor of over consumption, regardless of its source. Somehow the conversation has unfolded to implicate nutrition information being broken, and at worst being the cause for the increased incidence of obesity. If the label has shown the total amount of sugar all along, how can that be at fault? Here the quantification of the amount of sugar is transparent. Appreciating what that amount represents in total daily intake would, however, be simplified by setting up guardrails.
In 2015 Health Canada also proposed to amend nutrition labelling regulations in Canada. In regards to sugar, the idea of including separate amounts to added forms of sugar and naturally occurring sugars was abandoned. Instead the amount of sugar is proposed to be included in grams per stated serving as it always has, alongside a new feature, an amount expressed as a per cent daily value. This provides transparency as it always has, but also simplifies the matter of appreciating the relevance of the amount in grams. Transparent yes, simple yes.
Had Health Canada elected to differentiate between added forms of sugars and those that are naturally occurring, the outcome would not have provided any gain in relevant transparency. It would have made matters even more confusing in that it would have pitted the concept of good sugars against bad sugars, something the current definition of “sugar” is not capable of doing. Perhaps quantifying the many types of possible monosaccharides would provide greater transparency, but at a cost of being impractical for what might be little or no significant benefit. The goal is to guide consumers in as simple a manner as possible such that sugars are consumed in moderation. Establishing a per cent daily value guardrail, would seem to fit a reasonable expectation of what transparent and simple should be.
The face of a Canadian food label will evolve significantly over the next few years. The rewards of these efforts will not be realized in Canadians making better food choices if there is not at least an equal effort made in understanding label information. The truth will remain hidden only from those who wish not to understand. Food literacy is an equal partner to transparency.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org