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Understanding food labels

31 Jul 2014

I bet most of you foodies reading this went “Right on! Yeah!” But actually, what I wanted to talk about was something a bit different and not always so popular – the rules that govern the food we produce, label and sell.

I was thinking about that this morning as I read the article about the new labelling rules in France. All food NOT made from scratch, on the premises in restaurants must now be labelled as such, the idea being to promote people who actually do genuinely make their food themselves.

It sounds a good idea but since it’s estimated that around 75% of restaurants buy in SOMETHING, chefs are unsurprisingly in a panic about it. The problem is, of course, what exactly constitutes homemade? In the UK for instance, you used to be able to label anything as homemade as long as it was actually heated up on the premises. Would a rule like this work in SA? I’m not sure, but I bet there’d be equal uproar if it was introduced.

If you’re not sure what’s in your food then a new app from Unilever aims to help people understand even more from food labels, giving nutritional information and demystifying complicated food health and safety legislation. As more and more people go onto restrictive diets such as low carb high fat and more chefs and food manufacturers are going to have to have this information at their fingertips in order to keep their customers happy and informed.

One piece of labelling I WOULD like to see done away with, is the ‘Best Before’ date on food. Did you know that we throw away an estimated 10 million tons of food in South Africa every year? In a country where food security is a huge issue for many, this seems to be unacceptable. I saw a friend in the UK chuck an entire free range chicken, which cost him 15 GBP (R275), into the bin because it had a ‘best before’ date of the following day and he didn’t have time to cook it.

I see friends here in SA discard food as soon as the ‘best before’ date comes round whilst my son happily consumes yoghurts up to 3 weeks ‘out of date’ but which smell and taste fine to me. The edge of a piece of cheese goes mouldy - who throws the whole lot in the bin or who cuts that piece off and uses the rest? I do the latter, but I know plenty of people who slavishly follow the dates rather than trust their noses and own instincts.

Back to the UK again, it is estimated that 75% of veggies grown into the UK never make it to people’s plates. Most of it is discarded or not even harvested because it looks too ugly and we consumers demand picture-perfect carrots and potatoes – the exact same is happening here in SA according to Council for Scientific and Industrial Research waste researcher Dr Suzan Oelofse. So I was thrilled to see that French supermarkets are actually doing something positive about that.

The awesome ‘Inglorious Veggies’ campaign aims to stop food waste by promoting ugly fruit and veg which is often needlessly thrown away. How cool is this – what do you think Woolworths, Checkers and Pick n Pay? Up for the challenge?!

So labels can be a good thing, enhancing our understanding of what we’re eating and helping us make better choices. But equally so, when we let them rule our lives and stop us using our own common sense, then we have a problem. I’m on a personal mission to trust my nose, eat my leftovers and reduce my waste from now – anyone else going to join me?


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