Comment »Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009 at 12:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

How should you decide what to eat in order to stay healthy? You could listen to your supposed “angel and devil“, but a more sensible approach is to look at nutritional labels on food packaging. Two recent and independent reports reveal that the “traffic light” system for food labelling is the best approach from consumers. The food industry is resistant to this system however, so government regulation could be required.

The traffic light system
The traffic light system

UK readers will be familiar with these types of labels from supermarkets like Sainsburys. Each segment gives numerical information about the food’s nutritional value, but you can get a very quick idea of how healthy a product is by just glancing at the colours. Green represents low values of fat, sugar and so on, whilst amber and red are medium and high values respectively. Everyone has an intrinsic understanding of what these colours mean, so this easy to use labelling scheme is the Food Standards Agency (FSA) preference.

A study conducted in Australia supports the FSA position. Bridget Kelly, a nutritionist at the Cancer Council, New South Wales in Australia, and colleagues examined four different labelling schemes. She found that those participants shown the traffic light labels were five times more likely to identify healthier foods compared to percentage daily intake labels.

The Guideline Daily Amounts sysem.
The Guideline Daily Amounts system.

These labels are known as Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) in the UK. The system was developed by food manufacturers and retailers, and is used by supermarkets such as Tesco.

GDA represents a food’s nutritional information as a percentage of a typical adult’s guideline daily amount. It makes for more accurate comparisons than the traffic light system, but can be harder to use. It is the preferred industry method because it avoids an overload of red traffic lights – a complete turn-off for any health-conscious shopper.

“The food industry tends to favour the percentage daily intake method (known as Guideline Daily Amount in some countries), but our research indicates that the traffic light system is the most effective and that a consistent labelling approach across all food products is needed. This is unlikely to be achieved without government regulation,” said Kelly

An independent report for the FSA this week published similar findings. The research was carried out by the British Market Research Bureau in association with the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

They agreed that consistent labelling would be of most benefit to consumers, and that combining the high, medium and low traffic light colours with the GDA percentages would create the best system. The research also found that all of these schemes are valued by shoppers in helping them eat healthily.

The importance of proper labelling is highlighted by another recent story. Food perceived as healthy thanks to clever marketing are sometimes quite the opposite. A report last month from Which? on the nutritional value of breakfast cereals illustrates this, with the finding that “brands thought of as healthy, such as Kellogg’s All Bran, Bran Flakes and Special K contained high levels of salt and sugar.” The Which? report also criticised the use of GDAs over traffic lights.

It seems that support for a single labelling scheme is growing then. Andrew Wadge, the FSA Chief Scientist, said yesterday he was pleased that pressure was mounting on the parts of the food industry not providing this important labelling information.

He also promised to use this research to advise Health Minister on the way forward. They’ll probably be pretty grateful – Department of Health figures indicate that if our eating habits continue as they are, 90% of the adult UK population will be obese by 2050. It’s time for the traffic lights to change.

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