By DR TEE E SIONG
THE next time you go shopping in the supermarket, take a closer look at what you buy. No, not the attractive picture of the food in front. Turn the product around, and read the nutrition information box.
The story so far
In our country, you may not be able to find nutrition labels on every product. This is because the law does not require food manufacturers to include such information. If they do so, it is voluntary. Neither is there a system to ensure that the nutrition information is true.
On some food products, large words spell out Cholesterol-free or High-calcium in eyecatching colours. These are called nutrition claims, which are currently not regulated by law either.
In some countries, such as the United States, it is compulsory to put nutrition labels on processed food. This information is regulated by law to meet certain conditions and follow a standardised format. Malaysia's food laws will soon be similar to this, with the implementation of proposed amendments to the current law.
New and improved
The amended food law will bring about two main changes. Firstly, it will be compulsory for certain food products to have nutrition labels. The nutrients that must appear on these labels are energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat.
You may be wondering why vitamins and minerals, cholesterol, fibre or fatty acids aren't on the list of compulsory nutrients. These nutrients can be included, if desired by the food manufacturer, but they must meet the criteria as stipulated by the law. The labelling of these nutrients will not be made compulsory at the present time so as not to overburden the food industry.
This change means good news for you, the consumer. You will be able to find out the nutritional value of food products, and discern the "healthier" foods from others. But don't worry, you don't actually have to count all the values to understand what they mean. You can compare the nutritional values of a food product to another. For example, you can compare the energy value or calcium or vitamin content of various brands and their prices and make an appropriate choice.
However, if you really wish to know what the nutrient values mean, you can compare the figures against the Nutrient Reference Values (NRV). NRV are international values of several nutrients that may be used in nutrition labelling. By comparing the amounts of nutrients contained in a food to NRV, a consumer can have an approximate idea of how many percent each nutrient contributes to the daily diet.
The second change that the new law will bring about is that before any food can make nutrition claims (such as high in . . . or source of . . .), it has to meet certain requirements and conditions first. The respective values must be displayed on the label so you'll be able to confirm the claims of the product.
Claims are permitted to associate certain nutrients with certain body functions. A few examples are:
But be wary of food products claiming that their food, or the nutrients it contains, can cure or treat diseases. The truth is that there isn't a single nutrient or food so miraculous that it can heal or prevent disease. This is why the amended law will not allow such health claims.
Under the amended law, penalties will be imposed on food manufacturers who refuse to put nutrition labels or make false claims about their product. The manufacturers will also find their products losing out to others in the market, due to the increasing awareness of consumers such as yourself.
Even though the amended law has yet to be enforced, you can start making it a habit to read food labels. Foods imported from countries which have strict food laws and foods produced by reputable multi-national companies, will most likely have reliable food labels.
When the law is implemented in our country, all food labels will be regulated. You will then be able to rely on the nutrition information to help you make informed choices when you go shopping.
Dr Tee E Siong is the Chairman of the National Steering Committee for Nutrition Month Malaysia, and President of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia.