Food Safety Focus (47th Issue, June 2010) – Food Safety Platform
Nutrition Labelling and Public Health
Reported by Ms. Melissa LIU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety
Provision of nutrition information on food label is an important public health tool to promote a balanced diet. From this issue, we will have a closer look at nutrition labelling. First, we will study how nutrition labelling is related to the health of the public.
Why Do We Need Nutrition Labelling?
In Hong Kong, around 40% people are either overweight or obese. In addition, with an ageing population, chronic degenerative diseases are ever more common. About 1 in 10 people have diabetes, and up to 10% adults have hypertension. Cancers, heart diseases, cerebrovascular diseases and diabetes, four of the top ten killers in Hong Kong, have caused nearly 60% of deaths in 2009. Imbalanced diet, particularly those high in fat, sugars and sodium, is one of the important causes. The World Cancer Research Fund has clearly identified obesity as a key cause of cancer, the top killer in Hong Kong , and has recommended the public to limit the intake of energy-dense foods, salt and sugary drinks.
As such, the World Health Organization remarked that all countries must act more decisively to prevent chronic diseases by supporting healthier diet. It pointed out that consumers require accurate, standardised and comprehensible information on the content of food items to make healthy choices, and therefore supported the adoption of nutrition labelling schemes.
The Local "1+7"Scheme
A mandatory nutrition labelling scheme has been developed and will come into force on 1 July 2010. This scheme defines the need for prepackaged food to provide nutrition labels, with standardised format and content. It requires information on energy and seven specified nutrients, or so called "1+7", to be listed on food labels.
The "1+7"on the nutrition label refers to energy values and the amount of seven specified nutrients, namely, protein , carbohydrates , total fat , saturated fat , trans fat , sodium and sugars . Among them, protein, carbohydrates, and fats are the three main groups of macro-nutrients providing energy and building blocks of human body. Requirements on energy and these three items are almost universal in any nutrition labelling schemes throughout the world.
The Hong Kong scheme also specifies four other nutrients. Saturated fat and trans fat are two sub-sets of the total fat content. Fat can be broadly divided into saturated and unsaturated fats. Among the unsaturated fats, a group with special configuration called"trans fat" has also been found to be of special public health concerns. Excessive intake of both saturated fat and trans fat may lead to clogging of arteries and increase the risks of coronary heart disease and strokes.
Sugars are also a sub-set of carbohydrates, which can provide immediate energy source for the muscles and the brain. However, excessive intake of sugars can lead to obesity.
Sodium is one type of minerals required by the human body. It helps maintain the extra-cellular fluid balance and acid-base balance in the body. It is required for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. However, excessive sodium intake can lead to hypertension.
Nutrients in food and their associated health problems
|Nutrient||Associated health problems|
|Saturated fat||Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breast cancer|
|Trans fat||Cardiovascular disease|
|Sugars||Obesity, diabetes, colorectal cancer|
|Sodium||Hypertension, renal disease, stomach cancer|
In formulating the nutrition labelling requirements, various factors have been carefully considered. These included local health and disease patterns, implication on food choice, views of the trade and public, as well as principles adopted by international food standard setting agency. In the coming two issues, we will study how to make use of nutrition information to choose healthy foods.