Mandatory food labelingBy Rafael Castillo M.D.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It may be hard to believe that in a developing country like ours—while so many can hardly put food on the table for a decent three meals a day—many are also overweight and obese. Based on figures coming from the National Statistical Coordination Board and the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippines, 1 out of 4 Filipino adults is overweight with 5 out of 100 considered as obese already. Overweight and obesity are also an increasing problem among our children.
Some may think of it as a sign of progress but it actually mirrors more the kind of unhealthy lifestyle that we have. A lot of unhealthy food choices and gadgets of convenience that encourage inactivity characterize modern living. Voices of advocates promoting a healthy lifestyle are easily drowned by the much stronger decibels of advertisements promoting foods and products that may seem pleasurable to the palate, but are a virtual termite to one’s health and wellness.
Because of these unhealthy food choices, the incidences of both diabetes and hypertension have increased alarmingly in the country. We’re now considered a diabetes hotspot with around 10 million estimated diabetics and prediabetics. We also have around 15 million hypertensive and prehypertensive patients.
We support the move of the Department of Health and our Food and Drug Administration to require mandatory food labeling on most food products, so the consumers know exactly what they’re putting inside their bodies. Dr. Tony Leachon, consultant for noncommunicable diseases of the DOH, is once again waging a lonely battle against the strong lobbying of the food companies, but I’m sure he’ll get enough support from the health advocates and the active consumer groups to push this through.
Mandatory food labeling is already practiced by many countries worldwide. In some countries, it’s mandated by law. In some countries where it’s required by law, a list of ingredients—listed in order from highest to lowest quantity or based on their weight—is printed on the label. In certain cases wherein a label is not yet required by law, a list of ingredients should be present instead.
The mandatory label includes the standard serving measurement, calories the food product contains and a detailed breakdown of the constituent elements. It should state the total fat, sodium, carbohydrates and protein. Total fat content should detail amount of saturated fat, trans fat and total cholesterol. If it contains dietary fiber, sugars, vitamins and minerals, that should be included, too.
In some countries, the manufacturers are allowed to display certain nutrition information or health claims on the label and package. I believe that this should not be allowed unless strongly backed by scientific evidence with the amount contained in the product. Many products may contain inadequate amounts of a tried-and-tested substance but make a full claim already on the health benefits. There is an element of deception in such instances. Our local FDA should have a regulatory clout on these claims and make sure they adhere to accepted international standards.
Food labeling can also be expanded to restaurants, especially fast-food chains. They should be required to prominently display calorie and nutrient information on their menus. Many still don’t have an idea on how much trans-fatty acids or trans fats some of their favorite foods contain.
Trans fats are also called artery-clogging fats, and are often used in processed foods and commercial baked goods. They have been shown to increase the levels of “bad” cholesterol (called low-density lipoprotein, or LDL-cholesterol) and decrease the levels of “good” cholesterol (called high-density lipoprotein, or HDL-cholesterol). Eating trans fats increases one’s risk of developing clogged arteries that lead to heart disease.
From the business point of view, trans fats are good because they are relatively cheap and have a long shelf life. From the health point of view, they can be disastrous and have probably sent many unsuspecting victims who are frequent consumers of trans-fat rich foods to the emergency room for a heart attack or stroke.
Food labeling empowers the consumers to make better choices when it comes to the foods they eat and feed their children. A blind ingestion of anything tastefully nutritious is not necessarily to the consumers’ best interest. If they still decide to purchase and eat a product despite its unhealthy contents, then it’s their choice. At least they were provided the proper information, so they can’t blame anyone for not letting them know that what they eat or drink is unhealthy for them.