You’re Probably Being Misled by Food Labels

On my walk to work from the train station, I thought I’d try out a newly opened cafe on Collins Street in Melbourne. The branding was on point, the interiors — minimalistic and plenty of light flowing through the cafe. Definitely, Melbourne, plus the owners are behind some of Melbourne’s most well-known hospitality icons — Urban Deli, Buddabah and Sargon House of Coffee #instafamous

‘Can I have a soy chai, please?’

Then I paused, this would actually be my very first ‘chai latte’ from a cafe since having come back from the Himalayas a month ago. I’ve been eating incredibly healthy since I’ve come back — cooking every other day, trying to buy seasonable vegetables and using fresh herbs instead of preserved spices.

Conscious of what I’m putting into my body, I decided to ask — what’s in the chai? Courtesy of a lady at the Coles cafe I recently I found out that some chai mixes don’t need sugar because it’s ‘already in the mix’. The lady at this cafe didn’t really know, so I asked to see the chai packet, hoping it was Chai Walli or another good company.

She pulled out a large 2–3kg bag which in large letters read ‘ARTIFICIAL AND NATURAL CHAI MIX’. It was a mix of sugar and fake ingredients — thickeners, emulsifiers, artificial colours etc. From memory, I’m not sure it had any real tea in it. Though somehow it still cost $4.

How horrified Melbournians would be if their $4–5 coffee was actually just a mix of instant coffee or even worse flavoured artificial ingredients without any coffee at all. I politely said no thanks and carried on to work thinking about how misleading that label was — I wanted chai latte, not something fake that tastes like a chai latte.

Melbourne has a huge cafe culture — it’s part of the lifestyle here, we trust the places to sell us real food. It’s small choices like these that lead customers to lose trust in brands and places.

Late in 2018, I remember running to Woolworths and in my frantically busy mindset I thought I’d (for the first time ever) grab a ‘healthy’ frozen meal. I saw Super Nature’s ‘Super Green Wellness Bowl’ and picked up the Sri Lankan Root Vegetable & Ancient Grain Curry with Cauliflower and Brown Rice. It was green with a big picture of edamame, lentils, carrots, broccoli and brown rice and read ‘no artificial colours or flavours, preservative free’.

 

At home I read the ingredients carefully, of course, I wasn’t expecting a frozen meal to be super healthy but I was surprised by how unhealthy it was— there was only 14% ‘brown rice mix’ and 3% lentils — the rest was coconut cream and oils, firming agents, concentrate, sugar plus the ingredient list was incredibly difficult to decipher. The brand is owned by VESCO Foods who according to their website “create innovative products for leading retailers and offer comprehensive contract solutions” — when the ‘innovation’ is in relation to retail and contracts, it’s definitely not serving the end customer who consumes the food.

We’ve recently had a Royal Commission into banking in Australia, which despite the gravity of the 500 pages of findings, bank stock prices went up, though with growing obesity, diabetes and health issues in Australia perhaps we need a Royal Commission into Food.

This year globally humans will spend 7 trillion dollars on food, and as Seth Godin put it “That food will do more than simply keep us alive, it will make us feel alive, change our culture and impact the planet.”

I’m tired of companies with their stylish labels and on point brands selling us something completely different to what’s on the label. One of the few things I remember so vividly from my law school days is S18 of the Australian Consumer Law — Misleading and Deceptive conduct. This should be applied with gravity when it comes to the food industry, after all, it’s our health at stake. Why are pictures treated differently to words? Pictures and imagery are powerful at conveying meaning, arguably more powerful than words sometimes so why doesn’t misleading and deceptive conduct apply to their use?

Next time you’re grabbing a chai latte or any meal that comes prepackaged ask to see the label or if you’re buying it then read it carefully. It’s fine to eat junk food so long as you know that’s what you’re eating, but grabbing something seemingly healthy and realising it’s full of sugar and other stuff is a different story.

 

This piece was written by Daizy Maan and originally appeared on her Medium blog. It is republished here with her permission.

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