Front of Pack Labelling and white bread?

Sitting round a BBQ when you are a nutritionist can spark some interesting conversations. We were eating burgers – what great BBQ food – and putting them into white burger buns, there was salad available to put in or to eat alongside. All good. The conversation turned to the burger buns or, more precisely, the front of pack labelling.

Front of pack nutrition labels are provided to help consumers make more informed choices. When nutrition information is noticeable and easily understood, it can drive consumers to make healthier choices. Nutrition labels can also encourage food and drink companies to improve the nutritional quality of their products. They vary around the world – here are some of the different systems used.

UK Traffic light labelling

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Front of Pack Labelling in France

Sitting around the BBQ the questions were – why was the front of pack label green for a refined, very white burger bun? Wasn’t that a little misleading? Surely these white processed rolls could not be green and therefore a ‘healthy’ food?

The front of pack labelling considers the quantities of calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt per 100g or per portion of the food and, in France where the BBQ was happening, the Nutri-score takes into account the contribution the food makes to nutrients and fibre. It is not finely tuned to each individual food – this profiling applies to all foods. Eating a white burger bun has a better balance of nutrition for everyday eating compared to an enriched brioche style bread or croissant with lots of added butter and sugar. Or to cake. Or to cured meat. Foods with A ratings or lots of green can be eaten more frequently but we should eat a big variety of those A rated foods as they are all offering a different mix of nutrients.

White bread does contribute nutrients. Even these burger buns. They are also a source of fibre, obviously in lower quantities than wholemeal rolls. White flour is fortified in Europe to replace some of the main micronutrients that are lost when grain is refined. In white bread, there are no phytates which can bind to micronutrients reducing their availability.

In addition, some people should limit the amount of fibre they eat – those with low appetites (older people) or small tummies but high energy requirements (very young children) or those with certain conditions of the gut. These groups may need to eat more white bread than brown. Context is important. We cannot simply say that white bread is ‘unhealthy’. Of course, for most people, a bread roll made from wholegrain flour will be better as most of us don’t eat enough fibre and switching to wholegrain or multigrain bread makes a good additional contribution.

Bread of all kinds can also be high in salt and a surprising source of sugar. The recipes that manufacturers use can limit these to make breads better overall – small improvements to staples like breads can make a big contribution to public health.

The product formulation is key. A white roll where the product developer has considered what it takes to have a green label will be better overall than one where no consideration of the label has been made – the salt may be high or there may be lot of sugar.

Manufacturers take into account what it takes to improve front of pack labelling – a move towards more green or a rating closer to A on the label leads to improvements in the recipes from a health perspective and as more consumers are concerned with health this is important. As a result, front of pack labelling can have a positive effect on formulation of products. Lots of small improvements to manufactured food in this way overall can have an effect on public health.

Front of pack labelling can be useful choosing between products like breakfast cereals or jars of sauce or ready meals. Or burger buns. If these composite products have high levels of salt or sugar or fat or are very energy dense or low in fibre then they won’t be green. So if you are choosing between like for like products, you can use its rating as one of the criteria to choose which product to buy. In France the rating goes from A to E, the closer to A the better. In the UK there are a range of nutrients with colours associated with them – red, amber or green – the more green dots the better.

Front of pack labelling alone is only one small part in helping us make better choices about the food we eat, in particular when we are choosing manufactured, prepackaged food. It has to go hand in hand with eating lots of variety and lots of foods that are minimally processed like fruits, veg, grains, canned pulses, nuts, seeds, unprocessed meats and dairy – many of these products won’t have front of pack labelling.

In answer to the question – yes, a white burger bun can have a green or A rating if it meets the nutrient profile criteria. But variety is important. Would wholemeal buns be better? For most of us yes if they are available. What we eat with the white bread roll is important, as was what we ate the rest of the day.

Does an A rating mean that the food is a perfect healthy food? No. No food is perfect because eating well and healthily is about the balance of all the foods we eat. It simply means that if you compare these ratings you can make better choices within food groups. These ratings and front of pack labels can encourage our food manufacturers to produce better food, this is a good thing.

Context is also about the occasion – those convenient pre-cut white rolls on a camp at a BBQ were well suited. We may not choose the same product if we were having a BBQ in our garden for example. The rating system allows us to choose burger buns for this situation – long life, well packaged, ready to use for a big group at a campsite – that meet a certain standard nutritionally.

Nutrition is not black and white. Context is everything.

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