Designing food labels with sustainable & healthy food systems in mind

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Designing food labels with sustainable & healthy food systems in mind

Creative ideas from students at KIIT University, Bhubaneswar, India  (written by Dr Kerry Ann Brown)

When you walk into your local food shop to pick up your groceries, you are faced with countless options. How do you decide which oil to cook with, which brand of juice is your favourite, or what biscuits to buy?  Food labels can provide information to help make this decision, but many current labels provide information only on branding and the ingredients list. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impacts and ethical implications of the food we eat. What if food labels could provide us with some information on this too?

Photo credit: Benjamin Katayz

We asked a group of food technology students at KIIT University to design a label for a food product of their choice, thinking carefully about the information both manufacturers and consumers might want or need. The session was held on the 20th March 2018 at KIIT University, Bhubaneswar, India, organized by Professor Tapan Adhya and Dr Gargi Dey and supported by researchers from two projects; Sustainable and Health Diets in India, and SHEFS: the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems. Through designing a food label, the aim was to think about how food is intrinsically linked to both our health and the health of our environment. Students were therefore encouraged to consider the role of their chosen product in the food system, its impact on human nutrition, and if there were any significant environmental costs.

Photo credit: Benjamin Katayz

The students divided themselves into three groups:

Group 1: (2 products) “Drink it till you make it” pro-biotic drink + millet porridge

Group 2: Greenhouse gas heavy beef

Group 3: Indian luxury Kerala dark chocolate

The session generated lively discussions, with challenges and complexities for food labels highlighted:

  • The legal obligations: in India, this relates to the regulations set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). Legal obligations determine the factors you have to include in labels, such as the ingredients list, vegetarian or non-vegetarian symbol, batch or FSSAI license number.
  • Calculating and displaying the environmental impacts of the food item: including both the raw ingredients and the food packaging. All the students chose to use biodegradable packaging, but there are some things that you can’t change. Beef, for example, has high greenhouse gas emissions, land-use, water-use (see study by Vetter et al, 2017 for full details of greenhouse gas emissions of foods in India). What would an environmental food label mean for beef sales? How could you devise criteria or a rating system for product sustainability – one that could distinguish between sustainability ratings in different areas of the food system? Where the food is grown will also affect the environmental impact, which further complicates the calculation.
  • How to make and market a healthy and sustainable product? In the case of chocolate for example, this could mean has less sugar/milk and more cocoa, but will this change the taste? Can all products be made more sustainable?
  • The social impact of foods as they travel through the food system: can labels display information on the welfare and working conditions of those who produce raw ingredients, such as the fair-trade foundation logo used in the UK?
  • Finally, is labelling useful at all? We are strongly influenced by habits, convenience, taste preferences and necessity in our food choices – so will giving more information really matter?

The engagement activity was interactive and creative: thought provoking for both the students and researchers. The students were particularly interested in the welfare of the farmer and fair trade/fair prices to minimise exploitation of those involved in the production of foods. The researchers took away from the session an awareness of the potential conflict or agreement between successfully taking a product to market versus fulfilling the legal or moral obligations related to achieving both a healthy and sustainable food system. In addition, new research questions have been generated that will feed back into the SHEFS project and could inform the future direction of the research.

The session was led by Dr Kerry Ann Brown (LSHTM), and supported by Professor Alan Dangour (LSHTM), Benjamin Kayatz (University of Aberdeen), and Fran Harris (LSHTM). We would like to give our warm thanks to Professor Adhya, Associate Professor Gargi Dey, and all the students at KIIT University, for their participation and for welcoming the researchers from the SHEFS & SAHDI projects. SAHDI and SHEFS are both supported by the Wellcome Trust ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ programme.