Label of love: Cape pupil’s smart idea is food for thought
Grade 10 youngster's use of symbols and simple language on food labels scoops a top science award in China
It all started when Khayelitsha teenager Phoebe Mgxaji went to her school tuck shop to buy water, only to be told it only sold sweetened fizzy drinks and juice.
That was the day she began researching food labels – in between schoolwork – and realised there was a great need to simplify food labels and make them understandable for everyone, including children. This project has now earned her recognition at the world’s largest scientific and technological conferences for the youth.
“This [the day at the tuck shop] made me realise that we are not being given a choice of whether or not we want to eat healthy. I realised that there are so many bad things that could happen to our bodies due to eating this way, so from there after I started researching on this,” she said.
During her research, the 16-year-old Grade 10 pupil from Curro Sitari in Somerset West soon discovered that food labels were not so easy to understand and mainly contained scientific jargon that she and her peers could not make sense of.
Mgxaji, one of the only four girl scientists from SA to attend the 39th Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition in March, won a silver medal in the bio-medical science category for her proposal on how to simplify food labels. She was also awarded the youth science and technology innovation special award, which is sponsored by Beijing district government.
She used easy-to-understand symbols such as percentages and colour codes to illustrate whether foodstuffs were healthy or not. She believes using symbols will help consumers make better choices and informed decision of whether they want to consume the product.
She said the current food labels used are mostly filled with code names, and there are names of additives and preservatives that very few people understand.
“The example of such is the use of MSG E1289. As buyers, we do not know what that is because we have never been told of these additives and preservatives.
“The labels, at most times, are deceiving or confusing as they may say no added sugar but have fructose which is a type of sweetener.
“What I have done is use symbols that all people understand such as percentages. If a product has 45% sugar for instance you will know that is too much sugar and as a consumer you will choose whether you want to eat that product or not,” she said.
Her research comes just as the country is trying to regulate food labels and have front-of-pack warning labels for unhealthy foods.
Lynne Moeng, chief director of nutrition in the national health department, said foods with high salt content, sugar and fat may soon carry such warnings.
She told TimesSelect that researchers had already started investigating various options that SA could adopt to simplify food labelling.
“Our research team is at various stages of testing food labels to see what consumers want. We know that most South Africans can’t interpret the current labels and therefore cannot make informed decisions on what to eat or not eat,” she said.
Moeng said the department hoped to complete its research before the end of 2019 and introduce front-of-pack warning labels afterwards.
Mgxaji, who intends to meet some of the country’s large food producers to discuss her labelling project, said she felt “absolutely honoured” to be recognised internationally for her work.
“It really means a lot to have been working so hard in order to improve in my project with the help of many people, and see it pay off with such a great reward. For me this is a great opportunity to grow in science,” she said.
Her intention was to make food labels so simple that even primary school children were able to know what they meant and tell if they were healthy or not.
“This change is necessary because if we do not know what we are eating, we may end up having diseases and disorders we know nothing about that can also be fatal. If we know our food labels well, that can even help doctors to know what we are eating and be able to diagnose patients earlier. If there is not change of the status quo then the obesity rates will merely carry on rising,” she said.
Curro chief executive Andries Greyling said Mgxaji was a perfect candidate for Curro’s recently launched #Learners2Leaders campaign, which celebrates “developing well-rounded youth with a bright future”.