Improving food labelling to encourage healthy choices and fight obesity

  • Date

    Wed 9 Dec 20

Dawn Liu Holford

Better food labelling would help us all make healthier food choices and help combat the obesity crisis according to an Essex academic.

Dr Dawn Liu Holford has been awarded an ESRC-funded Post-Doctoral Fellowship – one of only nine awarded this year by the South East Network for Social Sciences – to look at ways of making food information less confusing.

As a former national athlete – she represented Singapore at sailing - Dawn knows only too well the importance of healthy eating, but she says, all too often the nutritional information we are given makes it impossible for us to make an informed choice.

As she explained: “Food labels are currently very complicated and use a mixture of words and figures to tell us what is in our food. To empower us in our choices, food information needs to be easy to understand and relevant to individual needs. It should ideally also encourage us to make healthier choices overall.

“With this research I will be looking at what information people need to enable them to consider the trade-offs necessary in maintaining a balanced diet. So, for example, what do we need on a food label for cereal so that the most important contributions (fibre content) and warnings (added sugar) are salient and interpreted correctly? Could this be different for, say, yoghurt, where people need to weigh up the protein content, versus the sugar it contains?”

Dawn started her research in this area while completing her PhD, but she’ll now be taking a new approach using machine learning (computational modelling techniques) to find patterns in the information we use to make our food choices.

“By identifying what helps in decision-making we can push for the right information to be included on food labels, making it easier for us all to make healthier choices,” added Dawn.

She’ll also be working with Keep Fit Eat Fit, a start-up company involving a number of Essex academics, which specialises in providing physical, mental and financial well-being advice to companies and individuals, particularly home workers. Together, they will look at how to present healthy eating advice in a more engaging way.