Is your food green enough? New traffic light-coded labels to guide consumer food choices

pepper-yellow-red-orange-50584Here is the freshest piece of news to chew on – the traffic light-coded food labels have been accepted by the majority of British food producers and retailers and are to appear on food products within the next 18 months to help consumers make better-informed and hopefully healthier food choices and thereby address national obesity crisis. New labels will highlight the amounts of fat, sugar and salt in a product with red, amber and green colours to signify high, moderate and low values respectively. Although traffic lights have been in use for quite a time by certain food companies and retailers, such as Waitrose or M&S, others, such as Tesco, were relying on GDAs as a guide to appropriate product choices –  the system widely accused of being difficult to interpret and highly misleading for consumers. Indeed, indications of how much of one’s daily allowance of fat, sugar or salt is in the product leave plenty of room for food manufacturers to manipulate labelling information by indicating serving sizes that help product’s nutritional profile look better than it actually is. So now a new hybrid labelling system combining both front_of_pack_labeltraffic lights and GDAs is claimed to be a better tool to show consumers the way to a healthier diet.  However, some fear that such a simplified labelling solution will actually lead to an even more ignorant consumer, who would rely blindly and thoughtlessly on the colour scheme rather than take some effort to educate himself about proper diet and nutrition. Whether new system will lead to a better-informed and empowered consumers remains to be seen; what is intriguing to me is what will be happening on the industry side. For the companies accepting the scheme the future is foggy (or is it?) – will red colours be so off-putting for consumers as to significantly change their food choices, as is hoped by health officials and dreaded by the industry? One can also hope that the measure will induce some product reformulation on the part of the companies willing to avoid too much of the red colour on their products.  At the same time the voluntary system is argued to be toothless and not representing anything more than a way to divert attention from such radical but well-justified actions as 20% tax on sodas and mandatory salt and transfats removal from products, as Professor Simon Capewell of The Liverpool University contends (read the source). Some food companies, however, consider new scheme anything but industry-friendly.  While major food producers, such as PepsiCo, Mars and Nestle , have already signed up to a scheme, other significant industry players, including Coca Cola, Cadbury, Unilever and Kellogg, have refused. From this I assume that for the latter introducing colour labelling would invoke such disastrous consequences  that  the companies preferred to tarnish their reputation by refusing to cooperate – this is obviously regarded as not quite as bad PR for their products as the new labelling scheme would do. Isn’t it in itself a more than sufficient indication for a thoughtful consumer? If so, can we have a list of all the “refuseniks” (funky term, but not mine – see the Guardian article) to enable us to exercise some political consumerism and boycott the offenders? I myself would gladly do so. I have spent some time trying to find a full list of the companies that are shunning the scheme, but failed. So I already know what question I will ask at the forthcoming Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum’s seminar on food labelling policy which I am attending on the 2nd of July. Will report back.

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