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Do you need a degree to shop wisely?

"A report by the OECD reveals that 40 per cent of Australians do not have the necessary literacy skills to participate in daily life. This more than likely means many of us struggle to properly understand the labels on our food." Richard Cornish - Good Food

Now this article is not going to tell you what to look for in that list of ingredients in tiny print on everything you buy in the supermarket that is packaged in some way, nor the nutrition stuff either. Admittedly I was going to look at it, and it won't be totally ignored, but it's been done - pretty thoroughly - in an article called Navel Gazing: what exactly is in our food? by Richard Cornish of Good Food. Not just there either. There are lots of online sites with guides to what that all means.

No I was just going to think about packaging generally, and also to ponder on a few related things. For there is so much more on a food labels these days than ingredients and nutrition information.

Let's start with that statement at the top of the page that 40% of people in Australia "do not have the necessary literacy skills to participate in daily life." Let me say at the outset that I think that that number of 40% is vastly overestimated, although admittedly they do not define what they mean by literacy skills. Of course there are adults who cannot read at all, or very minimally. I do understand that, but not 40%. There are many more who have varying degrees of reading skills and certainly it's only a very small number who are up to Shakespeare or theoretical physics. I also believe that there are people who can read the words fairly easily, but may not actually know what they mean, which I don't think is what is meant by literacy here, although maybe it is. The Australian Curriculum site defines literacy thus:

"students become literate as they develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in society. Literacy involves students listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts …

Success in any learning area depends on being able to use the significant, identifiable and distinctive literacy that is important for learning and representative of the content of that learning area"

So perhaps I am being unfair to the OECD. Maybe they mean literacy to be more than just the ability to read and write and that it includes being able to understand what you are reading. Although that surely depends on what you are reading. I would not understand a technical text of any kind, although I do understand Shakespeare, which is all to do with experience really.

However, when it comes to food labels it's a bit of a minefield, of which everyone should have at least a minimal understanding. Some of it is easy for anyone who can read, some of it is not. And I include just about all of us when it comes to that list of ingredients. For example on the back of the packet of biscuits from Aldi shown below I have no real idea what Emuslifier 322 from soy or Acidity regulator 330 are. I also found that on some items - e.g. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce the list includes, spices and flavours, but doesn't specify what they are. Well it's a secret recipe I guess. There must be rules about what you can and cannot say. I'm guessing any chemical additives must be listed, but not specific spices or herbs or other flavours.

And dare I say that not only do you need an understanding of chemistry and food additives, you also need very good eyesight or a magnifying glass. I have now perused the smallest items in my pantry and actually I find that the size of the print for the Ingredients is pretty consistent, so maybe there is a minimal size that they have to be. Not that that size is easy. I have read the advice elsewhere, that the smaller the list of ingredients the better, and it is indeed probably the best advice. My sardines for example are purely sardines - even the species is spelt out - sardine pilchardus - extra virgin olive oil and salt. The Nutrition advice will tell you how much salt.

Do we need the ingredient list? Back in the day we did not have it. Back in the day - as in this vintage label from a can of pears shows, there is nothing. Just the weight, the manufacturer and a vague statement of quality. It was left up to you to decide whether they were good or bad for you.

If you cared anyway. Did people care? It's hard to think that my mother didn't care what we ate. Obviously she did, and according to the knowledge available to the housewife of the time, and within the restraints of her budget I'm sure she did her best. But she didn't know about the evils of smoking for heaven's sake, so I'm sure she didn't know that tins of fruit were generally loaded with sugar, or indeed, that sugar is bad for you. Well maybe dimly. Sweets were rationed out. And she wasn't stupid or illiterate.

And did you know anyway, that in spite of all the food labelling laws around ingredients, some things do do have to appear on that list:

"Due to food labelling laws there are some things you will never know about your food. With genetically modified organisms (GMOs) there is no way to tell If the oil used in your biscuits was derived from GMO canola or if the meat in your pie came from a cow fed on GMO feed. There are things called processing aids that are not required to be mentioned on the label. There is clay used to make wine clear and enzymes used to make meat more delicious. There are plans to spray viruses on chicken to get rid of harmful bacteria – they are called bacteriophages and you will never know they were used." Richard Cornish - Good Food

But look the genetic modification thing is clearly becoming an issue because there on the back of a pack of San Remo linguine, just below the link to their Facebook page, which is really interesting in itself, is the statement "Free of genetic modification".

You might be told, as a marketing ploy however, that these things don't happen - or. rather, that some things don't happen as in this pork label from Coles. 'Sow stall free' it says and it makes a big thing of it, and further down they tell you that it is 'free from artificial growth promotants.' However, down there in the small print it defines 'sow stall free' as meaning that it has been 'born to sows that can move around and socialise during their pregnancy.' Now I'm wondering if for the rest of the time - if, of course, there is a rest of the time - they are in tiny stalls in which they cannot move. Oh dear. Is too much information a good thing? Does it just raise more questions?

So while we have this particular label, cluttering up this post, what else should we notice? I suppose the main thing is that it is an Australian product. A recent CSIRO survey of around 1700 people in South Australia found that one in three people were most influenced by the country of origin. Then came ingredients, then the nutritional information. I have to say that I probably slot into that kind of profile. And producers like to trumpet that their product is Australian good and loud - witness the main label for my sizzle steak (dinner tonight). 'Australian pork' above the label showing what cut it is and then a bit of marketing: "Always sourced from Australian farms. Both of which are repeated elsewhere. It's important.

Country of origin is the first thing I check, if I check anything at all. And today the country of origin label, if it makes any claim to being Australian has to actually be specific about how much of the content is Australian:

"For food to be considered to be ‘Made in Australia’, it must be wholly Australian or substantially transformed here – that is, the finished product must be fundamentally different from any of its imported ingredients." CSIRO

It's an example of how labelling is a constantly changing thing, as well as a demonstration of country of origin is. My sister won't buy anything from Norway for example - they hunt whales she says. Ethics comes into it. Politics comes into it. Patriotism comes into it. Environmentalism comes into it - think about how far it has to come, and whether the producing country has high productions standards, or whether your canned tomatoes are picked by slave labour. As I say - it's a minefield.

On the other hand sometimes the country of origin label works in reverse. Sometimes you want the 'real thing' - that Prosciutto di Parma, Roquefort cheese, Portuguese sardines - they are supposed to be the best - and they do taste good. Besides there are some products - like sardines in fact - that are never produced here. Though I have to say I don't quite understand why we don't do canned sardines.

A brief word about Best Before and Use By dates. I know you know the difference - but maybe someone with lesser literacy skills would not? Again, would it matter. My mother would not have had this to help her. She would have gone by appearance and smell.

So what else is there on our tins, packets, cartons and jars? So much more. You would not think you could squeeze as much information into what is sometimes a tiny space.

Let's begin with the front. Probably, most of the time, this is all that you look at. Marketing heaven. Let's take San Remo linguine as an example. What do they want you to know? Their name and the product obviously. Their logo of the two monks indicates authenticity and tradition - real food with a history. And that is emphasised under the name 'the pasta people since 1936' - long but not as long as the monks might suggest. On the front of the package they do not draw attention to being Australian - well pasta is indubitably Italian, and perhaps we haven't quite accepted as yet that Australian is good too. So they translate a couple of their statements into Italian, to almost mislead you into thinking it's an Italian product - the name does that too. (I must look into them some day. It's probably an Italian migrant success story.) They emphasise that it is made from Durum wheat - not ordinary flour - it's'pasta di semola di grano duro' indeed and that there are no artificial colourings, flavourings or preservatives. So, in summary - sort of Italian, we've been doing this forever, so we know what we are doing, natural and made from the right kind of flour. It's linguine no. 1 - another 'authentic' touch and cooks in 10 minutes. And the weight of course - but then they have to tell you that.

Also on the front of many products are those special marketing things - some kind of award or certification. Such as the MSC certification on the tin of sardines. Let's take Aldi's biscuits as an example here:

The cocoa is UTZ certified. What does that mean you might say. Well it's a Dutch not for profit organisation that:

"addresses agricultural practices, social and living conditions, farm management, and the environment. In January 2018, UTZ officially merged with the Rainforest Alliance in response to the increasing challenges of deforestation, climate change, systemic poverty, and social inequity."

Which is all good stuff although you wouldn't know it. But you might well think it must be because it's being pushed. None of these kind of certifications are compulsory labelling of course, but in this day and age - at least to the socially aware and therefore literate I think we can assume - they are important marketing ploys. I've just noticed I do them wrong though - on the back of the packet is an explanation:

"UTZ stands for sustainable farming of cocoa with better opportunities for farmers, their families and the planet."

And there is a link to the UTZ website.

Aldi has been a bit brave with this particular product - chocolate biscuits - by putting the voluntary health star rating on the front of the packet. Not a lot of health benefits here - just half a star out of the potential 5, emphasised by the nutritional statement next to it. They could have hidden it on the back. But they don't lose the opportunity to trumpet that there are no artificial colours or flavours or preservatives - just the natural one - sugar. And the emphasis here is on European - they even have an Italian name - which is direct food snob appeal.

And every product these days must have a series of recycling logos to show you what you can recycle and what you cannot.

On the back or the side in tiny, tiny print often - this is where you need a magnifying glass - is factual and contact information about the producer. I imagine this also must be compulsory, because it's always there. Sometimes it's surprising, sometimes not. Sometimes there is a producer and a distributor. In the case of Aldi they also seem to have to make a statement that the name Belmont, is actually an Aldi trademark. But we knew that didn't we? Surely nobody thinks they are real companies.

And that's not all - there are still the barcode and various other codes and numbers that mean nothing at all to us. These are partly for the ultimate seller so that they can keep their shelves stocked, and work out what every individual who shops in their store likes to buy, sometimes I imagine they might be codes for batches, suppliers, use by dates. Who knows.

If there is space there will be other marketing statements to entice you to buy, reviews, recipes, tips on how to use and store the product. And, of course, the pictures of the product itself, the logo, or images to emphasise the particular feature of the product that the producer wants you to concentrate on, whether that be health, prestige or pleasure.

To how much of this do you pay attention? Is it just the name of the product, the weight and where it comes from? Maybe you don't even care where it comes from. Maybe you really only look at the packaging for the name and the price information - which is not on the product at all but is on that small label on the supermarket shelf. Just make sure the label corresponds to the item or you might get a shock at the checkout. Do you have the time to check all of this anyway? Do you have the literacy skills to interpret the tiny writing and all the jargon about kilojoules and daily nutritional requirements? I really do think it's a good thing that all that information is there. It surely must have made some manufacturer's reassess what goes into their product. If you want to know what is in your food then the information is there for you.

Or is it? What about the fresh produce? If it's not in a packet you have no idea really where it comes from - other than country of origin - or how it is farmed. I suppose if it is labelled organic it has a certain set of standards to conform to, but I don't think there is any GM labelling for example - if you care about that - or how much water is used in the production, who harvests it, what fertilisers and pesticides are used, how does it get to you. Endless questions. Ditto for anything you buy in the deli section, although fish is labelled with the various sustainable accreditations. Packaged meat has information - witness my pork sizzle steaks, but not meat from the butcher.

Do they teach any of this in schools? Is how to read a food label a topic in the food technology course that my granddaughter does? Do they teach any of these practical everyday things in school? They should. It's truly fascinating and, as I have said many times, the whole world of economic, political, environmental, social, scientific issues is right there on your supermarket shelf. If you can read and interpret it correctly.

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