19 Jun 2013

Traffic light food labelling, the road ahead? Q&A

Much more pre-packaged food is to be labelled using a traffic light system, after companies agree to a standardised scheme that will allow shoppers to compare products more easily. Will it work?

Traffic light food labelling, the road ahead?

Food sold in packaging will be colour coded according to a red, amber and green scheme to show how much fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories it contains.

A smaller version of the labelling system already exists, but a host of large food retailers and manufacturers have now signed up to it. They include: Mars UK, Nestle UK, and Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s.

The new system is also designed to standardise the way in which nutritional values are displayed, making it easier to see whether a packet of biscuits is healthier than a bag of crisps.

But will it work? Channel 4 News takes a look.

What are they doing?

What they have already done, only on a larger scale.

There are already EU laws stating certain details which need to be displayed on food, such as what is in it, how it is prepared, the manufacturer, and the quantities of ingredients as a percentage of the final product.

These laws are due to be overhauled in December next year, applying from December 2016, with new guidelines on displaying nutritional information as well.

In the UK, a traffic light system was devised for the Food Standards Agency in 2005, which rated certain elements of food according to a red, amber and green scale.

Fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories will each be rated according to the colours. If the percentage of any of them go beyond what experts say is a healthy level, they go from green to amber, and if they then become even more severe, into red.

The system was taken up by numerous retailers, but each often used their own measurements, meaning that it was difficult to compare like with like. One brand of lasagne may have given the amount of fat in 100 grams, while another may have used a 60g measure, for example.

The coalition government held a consultation into nutritional labelling in spring 2012, and in October 2012, the department of health said it wanted to use the traffic light system. Sources at the Department of Health suggested that the decision was partly in anticipation of the EU directive.

But why do it, when you can already get nutritional values from packaging?

This is what Ms Soubry said: “The UK already has the largest number of products using a front of pack label in Europe but we know that people get confused by the variety of labels that are used.

“Research shows that, of all the current schemes, people like this label the most and they can use the information to make healthier choices.”

Is the minister right? Studies in the UK and the US suggest she is.

A 2011 study paper in the European Journal of Public Health said that consumers found it easier to understand the nutritional values of foodstuffs when they were presented colour coded, and with the percentage of the guideline daily amount on top. Presenting different labelling with an array of tables, boxes, numbers and lists was seen as more confusing. Academics in the US suggested similar.

The other reason is that under the current system, the general rule of thumb will be to use 100g as the basic measure to determine whether something is red, green or amber, so percentages of one product can be compared with that of another at a glance.

Do interventions into food manufacturing work?

With food labelling, it is very early to draw conclusions. The traffic light labelling system is not widespread or tested enough to be of real use when determining whether it has reduced people’s salt, fat or sugar content.

Likewise, public health experts say that it is difficult to isolate any single factor when it comes to food to see whether a new project or scheme is working or not.

What we can say, however, is that British consumers do not appear to be addicts when it comes to food, and how sweet or salty they like it.

The Consensus Action on Salt and Health published a paper this week showing that the amount of salt contained in bread – the single largest contributor of salt in the British diet – has reduced by 20 per cent in 10 years.

Likewise, the FSA said that urine samples suggested that the average adult was consuming 9.5g of salt a day in 2001, and that fell to 8.6g per day in 2008.

“Less salt is being added at the table by consumers,” the Consensus Action on Salt and Health said.

Which means that overall, our salt levels have declined, and we are not attempting to compensate for the lack of salt by pouring a load of it onto our plates every time we eat instead.

Neither do sales of bread appear to have declined.

So what else could they do?

The government’s “nudge unit”, otherwise known as the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, said that six out of ten adults in the UK are overweight, and this costs the NHS around £4bn a year.

And because being overweight is associated with higher death rates and more sick days, the nudgsters say, the total economic cost is £7bn a year.

The nudge team said that the New Mexico State University College of Business did a study, where they taped off one half of a shopping trolley and prompted shoppers to use that half for fruit and veg.

“By visually prompting people in this way,” the study found, “there was a large increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables purchased.”

As to whether we will ever reach the stage where you can have your cake and eat it, that remains to be seen.