In September 2018, the tragic death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse highlighted the shortcomings of food-labelling laws. It did, however, have two positive outcomes. Firstly, it resulted in the passing of “Natasha’s law”. This tightens up requirements for allergen labelling. Secondly, it highlighted the issue of inadequate or misleading food labelling.
The issue of allergies
Allergies are when the body’s immune system misidentifies a harmless substance as a threat. The fact that an allergy triggers the immune system means that its symptoms can be anything from mild discomfort to fatal anaphylaxis. This means that allergies have to be taken much more seriously than food intolerances.
In principle, any substance can be a potential allergen. In practice, certain substances are known to be common allergy triggers. In the UK, the law recognizes 14 key allergens. These are:
- Cereals containing gluten
- Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million) Tree nuts
At present, these allergens must be identified on most pre-packed food. The exception is food that is prepared and packed in the location where it’s sold. As of October 2021, this exception will be removed. It’s worth noting that there is nothing to stop businesses from applying the future rules now. In fact, it could boost your reputation amongst your customers.
The issue of intolerances
Food intolerances are when a person is incapable of processing a food item effectively. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances are highly unlikely to be fatal. They can, however, be extremely uncomfortable for sufferers. It can therefore be considerate to include them in your food labelling.
The most common sources of food intolerances are as follows:
- FODMAPs (especially fructose)
Less common sources of intolerances include:
- Food colourings
- Sugar alcohols
The issue of alcohol
Products containing alcohol need to have the fact clearly labelled as they will be subject to age restrictions. Clear labelling also helps people who, for whatever reason, do not want to consume alcohol, or at least, not at that time.
The issue of halal and kosher
If you are selling food products that could come under the halal and/or kosher rules, then you will need to take a decision on whether or not to apply them. If you do, then it’s advisable to label the fact on the products themselves. Customers will not necessarily bother to ask or check your website.
The issue of misleading labelling
Companies may wish to use their food labelling as part of their marketing strategy. For example, they may want to highlight the benefits of their products. In principle, this is absolutely fine, as long as there is space on the packaging. In practice, companies need to be very careful to avoid anything which could be seen as misleading.
Consumers (and regulators) are becoming increasingly sensitive to companies playing even slightly fast and loose with food marketing. Here are some particular “hot spot” areas along with some guidance on what to avoid and what to put instead.
Comparisons with other products
This one is a particularly hot topic at the moment due to a battle between the meat and dairy industries and the makers of vegetarian and vegan alternatives. In short, after lobbying from the dairy industry, the EU is proposing to ban makers of plant milks (and related products) from referencing animal milks in their labelling, advertising and marketing.
On the one hand, it may seem ridiculous that the EU is even contemplating banning producers of vegan products from drawing comparisons with animal-based counterparts. On the other hand, however, there is a case for arguing that all food items should be marketed on their own merits rather than by comparison to the competition.
Apart from anything else, if you market your product by throwing shade at your competitors, you can expect your competitors to end up objecting. This could end up having uncomfortable and expensive consequences for you.
Claims about vegetarian/vegan friendliness
If a product has vegetarian/vegan ingredients, then it’s absolutely fine to put a clear mark on the labelling to show this. Be careful about going any further than this. In simple terms, vegetarianism and, even more so, veganism, are lifestyle choices as much as dietary choices.
This means that, if you want to market to them, you really need to demonstrate support for the whole ethos of the lifestyle rather than just avoid certain ingredients. For example, you would be expected to use sustainable packaging and demonstrate positive behaviours as a producer and employer.
The beauty industry provides a helpful case study as to what can happen when companies assume that vegetarians and vegans are only interested in the ingredients list.
Many vegetarians and vegans are well aware that “vegetarian/vegan” products can still be tested on animals. They tend to have a strong dislike of companies that claim “vegetarian-/vegan-friendliness” while still using animal testing.
Claims about “naturalness”
Modern consumers have seen marketing terms like “all-natural ingredients” and “full of natural goodness” so often that, at best, they are likely to tune them out. At worst, they may assume that the claims are nothing but marketing-speak and react accordingly.
The key to getting their attention, let alone their trust, is to be specific about what exactly you mean. If possible, back it up with recognized certifications. Again, state what you mean in positive terms. For example, if you want to emphasize you avoid artificial colourings then state the source of your natural colourings.
Claims about nutrition
In simple terms, if you can’t say it clearly, don’t imply it. Consumers have long since wised up to phrases such as “no added sugar” or “reduced fat”. What’s more, they have become familiar with many of the alternative products such as sugar alcohols. Even if they’re not, they probably have the internet on their phone.
Similarly, if you’re going to quote calories per serving then be realistic about the serving size. Again, customers can easily figure out the real calories-per-serving with the calculator they almost certainly have on their phone.