Over the years the UK government and the European Union have implemented food labelling schemes to help consumers make informed decisions about what they eat.

Providing nutritional information on food packaging aims to make consumers stop and think before they cook their meal or eat their snack.

But has this approach been successful?

Below is a timeline of important dates related to food labelling in the UK.

1991

A report by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) provided Dietary Reference Values (DRVs) for energy, protein, fats, sugars, starches, non-polysaccharides (NPS), 13 vitamins and 15 minerals.

Four criteria were taken into account in order to create the DRVs. They included:

  • Estimated Average Requirements
  • Reference Nutrient Intakes
  • Lower Reference Nutrient Intakes
  • and Safe Intake.

1996

The UK Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) now known as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) initially set up Daily Guideline Intakes, eventually renamed as GDA (Guideline Daily Amount). At this time they were only set for fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and fibre in grams per day for men and women.

1998

This year saw the development of a set of GDAs for use specifically on food labels. Calories, fat and saturated fat were included for both men and women. This work was carried out as a collaboration between the UK government, consumer organisations and the food industry and was overseen by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD).

The resulting information saw many major retailers labelling the backs of their packs with GDAs but few food manufacturers implemented them.

2004

Choosing Health, a government white paper, established obesity as a key area requiring immediate attention in order to improve the overall health of the British population.

The need for clear and consumer friendly food labelling information was established as an action.

2005

A consistent back-of-pack scheme was rolled out, providing information for adult males and females as well as children in four age groups.

A study carried out by IGD found that two thirds of individuals surveyed had seen the term GDA in use on food packaging and correctly understood its meaning.

This was also the year where Tesco looked into displaying nutritional GDA information on the front of packs.

2006

A European set of GDAs was introduced by the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (now FoodDrinkEurope). A study found that 87 percent of respondents found the proposed manufacturer's labelling format to be ‘clear and simple’.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) implemented a campaign to help food manufacturers produce consistent front of pack GDAs. 

2007

The white paper on the Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related health issues was published. This further highlighting the need for consumers to have easy access to ‘clear, consistent and evidence-based information’.

The number of food companies using GDA information on their labels doubles and awareness of GDAs amongst consumers rose to 80 percent*. 

2008

Research carried out by the FDF showed a steady increase in consumer use of GDAs. They also found that consumers were increasingly turning to GDAs to make decisions about which food items to buy when comparing products and brands.

2011

The European Food Information Regulation (EU Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers) was applied.

This required nutrients to be listed in the following order:

  • energy (in kilojoules and also kilocalories)
  • fat (grams)
  • saturates (grams)
  • carbohydrates (grams)
  • sugars (grams)
  • protein (grams)
  • salt (grams). It was no longer permitted for salt to be referred to as ‘sodium’.

Most food companies chose to provide this information in a table format on the back or side of the food packet. The information provided was to be given per 100g/ml but companies were given the option of also including portion or consumption information or a percentage RI.

Any nutritional claims were required to be backed by information provided on the package. The inclusion of nutritional declarations in the law meant that consumers could trust the health claims made by food manufacturers.

Companies were given three years to comply to the new standards.

2014

The new EU legislation came into force. The term GDA was replaced by RI (Reference Intake). There was only one set of RIs for men and women and the new scheme did not offer information for children.

What difference has it made?

The fight against obesity is an ongoing and multifaceted one. Food labelling alone will not stop the spiralling obesity statistics. Those who are wanting to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle are encouraged to pay attention to food labels and be aware about what they include in their diet.

The impact caused by food labelling schemes does show some positive results regarding awareness and general use. However, obesity levels in the UK are still increasing, with over 60 percent of adults now classed as overweight or obese. The wealth of information being offered to consumers does not always lead them to necessarily make healthier choices.

Those who are struggling to lose weight on their own may be able to get helpful advice and treatment from their doctor.