Over the last decades, the governments of the world were becoming increasingly aware of the importance food labelling schemes might play in helping consumers make informed decisions about their dietary choices. Providing nutritional information on food packaging not only helps limit the risks of gaining weight, but also clearly separates healthy food with nutritional value from snacks which might, for example, be very rich in saturated fats and sugars, but low on other essential nutrients.

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But, just how much has this really changed our dietary habits? Do we make better choices and really rely on the information provided or we still tend to overlook the food labels and rely on other information when deciding what to eat? In this article, we will tackle this question by taking a look at some of the most important dates when it comes to food labelling in the UK.

Food labelling in 1991

The year 1991 was rather important when it comes to food labelling in the UK. It was during this year that the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (often abbreviated to COMA) submitted a report containing Dietary Reference Values (shortened to DRVs) for energy, proteins, fats, sugars, starches, non-polysaccharides as well as 13 vitamins and 15 minerals. The Daily Reference Values included:

  • Estimated average requirements
  • Reference nutrient intakes
  • Lower reference nutrient intakes
  • Safe intake

Food labelling in 1996

By 1996, the considerations first foreshadowed in 1991 developed further with the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (abbreviated to MAFF), known today as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) introduced the idea of Daily Guideline Intakes, known today as Guideline Daily Amounts (or GDAs). However, back in 1996, the GDA predecessor included the values only for fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and fibre, measured in grams per day and only for adults.

Food labelling in 1998

In 1998, just two years after Daily Guideline Intakes were first introduced, they were changed to GDAs, reminiscent of modern food labels. These included calories, fat and saturated fat for both men and women. The work on defining GDAs on food labels was a joint project of the UK government, a number of consumer organisations and food industry. The whole process was overseen by the Institute of Grocery Distribution, better known as (IGD). While this resulted in retailers labelling the back of their packs with GDAs, manufacturers were still largely uninterested in the new regulations.

Food labelling in 2004

In this year, a government white paper titled Choosing Health singled out obesity as one of the problems that will require immediate attention from the relevant authorities in order to contribute to the improvement of the overall health of the British population. This paper was the first one to directly state that clear and easy-to-read food labelling information should be established immediately.

Food labelling in 2005

Just one year after the proposition was officially made in the aforementioned white paper, a consistent scheme was introduced, providing standard GDA information for males and females as well as children in four different age groups. When the efficiency and readability of this approach was tested by IGD, it turned out that as much as 60% of consumers correctly recognised the term GDA and understood its meaning correctly. At the same time, Tesco retail company started testing out the idea of displaying GDA information on the front side of the packs.

Food labelling in 2006

In 2006, food labelling changed on a continental level, with the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (known today as FoodDrinkEurope) introduced a European set of GDAs. With this new scheme, as much as 87% of consumers claimed that the labelling format is clear, simple and easily understandable. This new approach was wholeheartedly supported by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) which implemented its own campaign to help food manufacturers produce consistent and standardised front packs of GDAs.

Food labelling in 2007

One year later, a white paper titled Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-Related Health Issues was published. This document was at the time just the newest addition to the long chain of articles and professionals’ opinions that called for easy access to clear, standardised and evidence-based information. During this year, the number of food companies using GDA information on their labels doubled, with the consumers’ awareness of the importance and meaning of GDA remaining above the 80% mark.

Food labelling in 2008

While no new changes to the legislation have been introduced in 2008, this year was marked by numerous researches conducted into the effectiveness of the practice. Most importantly, the study carried out by the FDF confirmed that turning to GDAs is becoming increasingly common among consumers when making decision about which food items to buy, or when comparing different products and brands.

Food labelling in 2011

By 2011, food labelling finally became mandatory. The European Food Information Regulation 1169/2011 (regulation on the provision of food information to consumers) was applied, requiring that the nutrients be listed in the following order:

  • Energy (in kilojoules and kilocalories)
  • Fat (in grams)
  • Saturates (in grams)
  • Carbohydrates (in grams)
  • Sugars (in grams)
  • Proteins (in grams)
  • Salts (in grams)

The food manufacturers started including this information in the form of a table at the back side of the food packaging. It was up to the companies to decide whether they will provide the information per 100g/ml, as portion or consumption information or as a percentage of Reference Intake (RI).

This stricter regulation ensured that the nutritional claims by the food manufacturers could be easily checked by simply reading the information provided. In this way, consumers were confident that any claims made by the food manufacturers were justified.

Food labelling in 2014

As the new EU legislation came into force, the former GDA was completely replaced by RI.

The impact of food labelling

While the fight against obesity is still lasting on various fronts, it is hard to say if any given element, just by itself, managed to make a noticeable change. Research seems to indicate that majority of consumer is familiar with the meaning of information provided on food packages, however, the impact of that information on making healthier choices is a completely different issue.

So far, it seems that in spite of these efforts and some positive trends, obesity is still on the rise, and is expected to continue in that manner. So, food labelling is unlikely to make a significant change by itself. On the other hand, it is of great value for all those looking to lose weight and make better and more informed choices about the food they consume.