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The problem with food labelling - as explained by the film 'Mean Girls'

Thursday 20 January, 2011 by Bek

Posted by Bek, 20 January 2011:   In the 2004 film Mean Girls, Cady Heron played by Lindsay Lohan hits on a plan to wreak revenge on her new high school's pack of bitchy popular girls (‘The Plastics'). As part of her plan she gives the Queen Bee of The Plastics, Regina (played by Rachel McAdams) a box of what she claims to be diet bars.

The labelling on the packaging of the ‘Kalteen' bars, however, is not in English and after eating them for a month Regina starts to look more sponge than plastic.

What Regina doesn't know is that the bars are actually formulated for athletes to gain weight rather than lose it. While food and alcohol labelling in Australia is technically in English, the amount of spin, lack of clarity and misrepresentation on labelling isn't that far off the Mean Girls scenario.

At present we're all like Regina because we don't have all the information about what we're consuming, and therefore we're consuming too many high-energy foods under the assumption that they're healthy. This contributes to our growing waistlines, which in turn can lead to many serious illnesses including cancer. 

Currently there are limited regulations over what has to be on a food label and no way for consumers to compare the healthiness of products at a glance.

Take for example a box of cereal. The ‘Crunchy Wheats' pack is covered in claims - it's ‘high in fibre' and ‘full of the goodness of wholegrains'. Sounds pretty good for you, doesn't it?

But if you read the fine print in the nutrition panel you'll find that it's got 11 grams of sugar per 33 gram serving size. Is that good? Is it bad? Is it too much? What does 33 grams look like in one of your bowls at home? You look at the percent daily intake tab at the top of the pack - for sugar it says one serve of ‘Crunchy Wheats' contain 12% of your daily intake of sugar. How does that figure with what you'll eat for the rest of the day after breakfast? Should you keep a notebook?

You decide to compare it to the tropical muesli on the next shelf, but you find that its percent daily intake is based on serving size of 24 grams... while I'm no ‘Plastic' (I can spell ‘orange') surely it shouldn't be so hard and mathematically challenging to find out which is better for you.

Food labelling has become a hot topic as the Federal Government prepares to respond to a review into the issue.

So what is the solution? The Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) of which the Cancer Council is a partner, has done a lot of work advocating for the introduction of traffic light labelling on food packaging.  Here's an excellent piece by the OPC that shows how packaging works to highlight positive ingredients and illustrates how traffic labelling would cut through the hype.

I know I've had a few Kalteen moments, like when I realised that smoothies can sometimes contain close to a quarter of your energy intake - and I thought I was making a slimming choice!

Have you been Kalteened? Do you find it hard to work out what you're eating? Or would having more information do little to change your eating habits? 

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