Hi everyone! It’s just the time for the next update on what is happening within the food labelling terrain as the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum on the future labelling policy which I promised to report on took place on Tuesday within the beautiful settings of the Caledonian Club in London. Although this was a half-day event, the schedule was dense and the number of speakers quite large. My first impression as I arrived and glanced on participants’ name badges was that the Forum seemed to be heavily industry-dominated with a majority of attendants being representatives of the food industry – The Dairy Council, Safefood, AB Sugar, Morrison’s, Aldi, Domino’s Pizza are just few examples. This initial impression proved to be correct later as I received my welcome pack with a full list of attendants. This alone I think tells something about who’s got the most at stake in all this food labelling issue. The main topic was, of course, the new traffic light labelling scheme and the speakers, ranging from the government people who was involved in the development of the scheme, the industry representatives to academics and public health specialists, each talked about different aspects of the subject. I will try to summarise the issues of most concern as well as the points that have specifically caught my attention.
One issue being continuously stressed throughout the event was the importance of bringing educational component into the new system if it is to achieve some real positive population dietary changes. It may seem contradictory that the traffic light labelling, often criticised for the oversimplification of nutritional messages, is also said to require an explanation and adequate interpretation. But it is just this oversimplification that could lead to public confusion over what a healthy (or at least healthier) shopping basket should look like. Many, and the industry in particular, worry that consumers will perceive red lights as stop signals and shun certain foods which can distort good dietary practices. Dr Judith Bryans from The Dairy Council was specifically referring to dairy products, many of which have quite high contents of salt (bad news for all cheese-lovers, myself included) and saturated fats (full milk and cream fans beware!) but at the same time are major sources of other important nutrients, such as calcium. She specifically stressed that portion sizes and not particular product categories should be under restriction. This may be taken as a self-defence on the part of the industry with its favourite “there is no such thing as bad or good food” argument (and if Dr Bryans did not intend to do this then a later comment from AB Sugar representative promoting the view that calories and not particular nutrients or foods are the obesity-inducing evil certainly did), but Prof. Alan Maryon-Davis from King’s College London, a public health doctor, shared the point and stressed the need to educate consumers about what these traffic lights are really intended to do and that is not to enable consumers to stay away from “bad” foods but to balance the diet. In other words, you don’t have to religiously avoid red blocks on a label but if you’ve already picked up some then making the rest of your shopping trolley “greener” will help achieve the right balance.
Another positive comment made on the new scheme concerned its potential to drive product reformulation. This is seen as both a benefit for consumers, who will enjoy nutritionally improved product versions, and a marketing opportunity for the food companies that will be able to promote a healthier image – a classic win-win really. However, it was also highlighted that while some companies refuse to join the scheme a genuinely level playing field cannot be achieved. Another issue that was touched upon several times is labelling of alcoholic drinks – it was pointed out that alcohol, currently exempt from calorie labelling, is a significant contributor to people’s energy intake and the one that gets unnoticed. Obviously, alcohol should not form a significant part of one’s diet anyway, but given the current consumption levels in the country the need for labelling seems to be beyond any debate. In relation to alcohol, the new traffic light scheme was complimented on its potential to highlight better choices while not requiring as much label space as a full nutrition declaration would.
The second session was opened by Alette Addison from the Department of Health and that was the most informative presentation of the day, in my opinion. She told the story behind the traffic light labelling initiative focusing on the research that informed the scheme. The main points is that consumers DO use food labelling (although maybe less than they say so) and that front-of-pack information expressed in a standardised, consistent way is the best understood. With regard to the new colour coded system, consistency, large market penetration and consumer motivation to use labelling were mentioned as key to achieving healthier food behaviours. Alette Addison has also debunked some of the misconceptions about the scheme. Firstly, she stressed that traffic lights do help to identify healthier food options and cannot be blamed for demonization of products as the rules, standards and numbers applied by the scheme are the same for all foods and thus offer fair comparisons. With regard to the point on portion sizes, she argued that because portions are not defined and vary across different products as well as consumers, they cannot be relied on for any dietary guidance. An interesting question came from the floor – someone asked whether reformulated product versions, such as low-fat or low-sugar, may still qualify for red colour and thus prevent consumers from choosing healthier options. Although it was admitted as true, Alette Addison highlighted that this is actually a strength and not a weakness of the new system because what matters is the actual amount of nutrients you ultimately get from food. Fair point, although I would say that if both a higher and a lower fat version of my favourite cheesecake has got equal number of reds on a label, that is not very helpful to me as someone who wants to indulge but would gladly prefer a less sinful way to do this.
This resonates with what was later discussed by Giles Quick, the Director of Kantar Worldpanel UK (consumer research specialists) who made an amazing revelation about us as consumers – the one we all probably knew but would never admit. So what he said is that when people go to the supermarket with an intention to buy a tin of biscuits, they WILL buy a tin of biscuits. He stressed that most of food choice changes are intra-categorical and not inter-categorical. In other words, there is not much use in trying to convince people that carrot sticks are a healthier food choice if what they want is BISCUITS. However, although hardly anyone will go for carrots instead of biscuits, what consumers are more willing to do is to choose a healthier version of that same biscuits. So product reformulation, which is hoped to be driven by the new scheme, can be a more effective way to make people eat more healthily. Related to this is a challenge of developing healthier versions of foods while not compromising on other important product qualities, such as taste and texture – after all, fat, salt and sugar are exactly what makes our foods palatable and what we are really craving for when choosing to eat something – so reducing their content with no detriment to how the product tastes and is liked by people is a challenge food manufacturers will have to face should they choose product reformulation as a long-term success strategy. On the other hand, reformulations have been going on for quite a long time and many of them actually get unnoticed by consumers unless loudly advertised. For example, most of the crisps on the market have been considerably reduced in salt content as part of the industry’s pledge to help achieve healthier population. Now there is a need to re-educate consumer palates to make lower-sugar and fat foods acceptable and actually favoured by people, just as it has been done with salt. This reminds me of my recent private conversation with someone involved in food research, who told me that companies do reformulate their products (either voluntarily or as the result of new legal requirements) but often choose to not advertise the changes out of fear that consumers will no longer perceive the product as their favourite one. I am curious if this will continue to be the case in the light of the traffic lights (what a play of words!).
Now this post seems to be too long already but I don’t think I can get away without talking about what I promised to report on – the non-adopters of the new scheme. I did have a chance to ask a question and I addressed it to Alette Addison as she mentioned in her talk that there were certain reasons why some companies seemed not to favour the new system. And so I asked what these reasons are. To sum up the response:
1. The criteria on which colour labelling is based had not been revealed before the scheme was introduced and so some companies preferred not to join the system (although this does not explain what prevents them from joining now as everything about the scheme is crystal clear)
2. Some companies are not UK-based and have considerable international presence so they do not adopt the scheme for the sake of consistency in how they label their products
3. Finally, some companies may also be in doubts as to what extent, if at all, such transparency in labelling is beneficial for their products’ image (and this reason seems to be closer to reality).
4. As for as the list of non-adopters, I was told it had already been published online and I was really pleased to hear this, although I’ve been trying to find this list online for two days now and failed.
Some other questions raised during the Forum related to concerns over how and by whom the use of the traffic lights will be overseen and what, if any, enforcement measures are out there to ensure the compliance. Overall, much hope is placed on the new labelling in terms of enabling consumers to more easily identify healthier food choices and move towards more balanced diets, although education is key if genuinely positive changes in consumer eating behaviours are to be achieved.