Better knowledge on pre-packaged food to facilitate NCD management

On June 8, The George Institute for Global Health, China (TGI China) hosted a Roundtable on Pre-packaged Food and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Prevention and Control. 

A small group of nutrition and food safety experts joined this high-profile, closed door meeting to learn the latest information about the global regulatory environment, the consumption and nutritional composition of pre-packaged foods, and consumers’ understanding of the nutritional labels in China. They also explored potential ways to improve current Chinese regulation and implement appropriate initiatives to improve the nutritional profile of pre-packaged foods for the better prevention and control of diet related ill health. Participants included researchers from TGI China, experts from Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment.

China’s rapid economic and social development has led to a dramatic increase in the consumption of packaged foods. According to a recent nutritional survey, pre-packaged foods compose approximately 2%-10% of a person’s daily food intake in two provinces of China, depending on gender and age, and this does not take into account the condiments that are consumed with the food. Consumption was found to be higher in younger people. Although there are policies and regulations about food nutrition labelling in place in China, its current format is difficult for consumers to choose healthier foods among the vastly available food choices.

The George Institute for Global Health (TGI) in Australia has been researching pre-packaged foods and NCD for many years and the research activities have been extended to China through its flagship project FoodSwitch. FoodSwitch is a free smartphone application designed by TGI to empower individuals to make healthier food choices by presenting key nutrients of a food product in an easy to understand format and listing healthier alternatives. The project has been successfully launched and carried out in China for over a year. Better understanding of the pre-packaged food market, nutritional composition and consumers’ need for better nutrition labelling in China has been achieved.

Professor Craig Anderson, Executive Director of TGI China, opened the meeting with opening remarks on the importance of pre-packaged food on health. Associate Professor Puhong Zhang, Acting Director of The China Center for mHealth Innovation (CCmHI) and Diabetes Program Head of TGI China, introduced TGI and its research work on NCD.

“As the market for pre-packaged food grows, the consumption will rise as well. Improving the healthiness of pre-packaged foods will be key to preventing diet-related diseases. By organizing such a meeting, I think it’s a good opportunity to share our work and experiences, and collaborate if possible to better support the government in NCD prevention and control,” Professor Zhang said.

The opening remarks and introduction were followed by presentations on the consumption of pre-packaged food in China, pre-packaged food nutrition labeling regulations around the globe, challenges on healthy food evaluation, understanding and use of current nutritional labels in China, accuracy of nutritional labels as well as strategy on salt reduction through setting targets for prepackaged food by experts from National Institute for Nutrition and Health of China CDC, NCD Center of China CDC, China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment and TGI China during the roundtable.

“Our recent survey found that consumers have very poor understanding of the current nutritional labels and only one third of people would refer to the nutritional information panel (NIP) when shopping at the market. The major barriers are deemed to be not knowing what the NIP is or how to use it (over 55%), and a surprising 22% people doubted the accuracy of the NIP. The majority of consumers wish to have clearer and easier to understand nutritional labels and many of them would prefer to see front of pack (FoP) labeling on the package,” Professor Zhang remarked.

Following the presentations was a group discussion focused on key issues such as the next step for improving the nutrition labelling regulation in China, and better education on general health knowledge and knowledge about nutritional labels, as well as potential collaborations.

The roundtable meeting concluded with closing remarks by Professor Zhang. “This event provided a platform for experts across different organizations to exchange the latest information and ideas in NCD prevention and control. Our work is in part overlapping but also supplementary to each other’s. It is a great opportunity for TGI China to present our research work, and I believe there is a lot we can work on together to achieve better results.”                                                  

The roundtable enhanced the understanding of the gaps in nutrition labelling on pre-packaged foods in China. “We can anticipate that the in-depth discussion during the meeting will substantially help improve government policies on pre-packaged food labelling, and further influence government policies on NCD prevention and control,” Professor Zhang concluded.