Excess nutrient intake due to consumption of pre-packaged food can negatively affect health (e.g. obesity and diabetes). In this connection, many countries have implemented mandatory nutrition labelling scheme, in order to facilitate consumers to make informed food choices.
In Hong Kong, food regulations (Cap 132W) require listing of the “1+7” nutrient contents (i.e. energy content + seven core nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars) and claimed nutrients on nutrition labels of most pre-packaged food.
However, several studies revealed that local consumers with lower education do not understand the meaning and usage of numerical nutritional information presented in a food label. This, in turn, discourages individuals from using nutrition labels and correctly making dietary choices that are beneficial to their health.
Indeed, the actual use of nutrition labels in Hong Kong is not common and perceived low compared to other countries like Europe, United States and Singapore.
Healthier Choice Symbol in Singapore
A study indicates that Singaporeans are interested in and frequently use nutrition label information. This can be partly attributed to pre-packaged food carrying a “Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS)” in front-of-package labelling, in addition to legal requirements of mandatory listing of specified nutrient contents.
(Health Promotion Board, 2012)
HCS serves as an easy-to-understand indicator of the product’s healthiness. Products carrying HCS are considered as “healthier options” e.g. lower in total fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar; higher in dietary fibre and calcium compared to similar products within the same food category. This helps consumers to rapidly identify healthier food choices when grocery shopping.
The symbol is administered by the Health Promotion Board (a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, Singapore Government), and a part of the Nutrition Labelling Programme in Singapore.
Specific Nutrition Criteria Set for Healthier Options
In order to carry a healthier choice symbol, a food product must meet nutritional criteria specifically set for its food category. For example, breads displaying the HCS should contain no trans fat, less sodium (450 mg/100g) and more dietary fibre (3g per 100g) compared to the regular bread.
HCS Logo (AVA, 2015)
Those acceptable nutritional values are in line with the conditions of making nutritional claims (e.g. nutrient content claim like “low sugar”, and nutrient comparative claim like “reduced saturated fat”, etc.) and tailored made for different food categories.
HCS vs. Overseas Health Logo
Compared with overseas health logo found in some pre-packaged products sold in Singapore, nutritional standard of Singapore’s HCS is different and more worth for reference because it is established to suit the diet of the local population. Indeed, Singaporeans are now more aware of the HCS than of overseas logos and have more confidence in choosing products with the HCS. This is due to intensive publicity from Singapore government to educate the public about the HCS, and the rationale behind it.
Lesson learned from Singapore
In Hong Kong, some food companies will write down nutrition claims like “low sugar”, “more calcium”, “reduced saturated fat”, etc. on their pre-packaged products. However, there’s no representative “healthier option symbol” that is widely recognized by the public yet.
As such, a symbolic “healthier choice symbol” following that of Singapore, is recommended to be adopted in Hong Kong. It is complementary to numeric nutritional values and written claims for consumers, and encourages them to use nutrition labels.
It can either be administered by the Hong Kong government or a third-party certification body, provided that the evaluation is impartial and based on the nutritional guideline values, as well as the food product has been analyzed by standard methods in an accredited laboratory.