Give shoppers a clearer signal

S GDA-based food labelling scheme used by some retailers and manufacturers, while helpful, lacks the directness of the traffic light system, says Gill Fine.

Recent research from the Department of Health suggests that the UK is "the fattest country in Europe" with one in seven children being obese. Poor diet is a contributory factor to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke – and although many of us have a good idea of what makes a healthy, balanced diet, it is not always so easy to follow one.

Labelling foods clearly and honestly is one way of helping people with busy lives to improve their diet, by giving them the information they need to make informed food choices quickly and easily. This was recognised by the Government in the "Choosing Health" White Paper in 2004 and since then the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been researching and developing a simple front-of-pack food labelling approach that will work for both shoppers and industry.

In the most extensive, published research of its kind to date, 2,600 shoppers told us they wanted clear and consistent information. The research shows that red, amber and green colour coding was key in helping them to understand and use front-of-pack-labelling schemes. Based on this evidence, along with earlier research and subsequent consultation with consumers, industry and stakeholders, in March 2006 the FSA Board recommended a voluntary approach based on four core tenets.

The first principle requires all schemes to provide separate information on the four basic nutrients of most interest to consumers (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) while the second specifies that the information includes the levels of these nutrients per portion. The other two principles specify the use of red, amber and green colour coding to indicate whether levels of these nutrients are high, medium or low – underpinned by FSA nutritional criteria to determine the colour coding.

It is this requirement for coding with traffic light colours that seems to divide opinion most. Tesco and a group of 21 food manufactures including Danone, Kellogg, Kraft and PepsiCo have rejected the traffic light scheme in favour of a front-of-pack labelling system based on using Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs).

Crucially, the GDA scheme rejects the use of indicative colours because of concern that shoppers would be discouraged from buying products with red labels on them. By contrast, Sainsbury’s, which has had a traffic light-based scheme in place for two years, told us its shoppers have been influenced towards healthier items by its traffic light scheme, but have not boycotted foods with a high number of red indicators. And in our consumer research, people said a red rating would make them think about how often to eat that food, but wouldn’t make them avoid it completely.

While some consumers do like the extra information that GDAs provide, without a traffic light colour code, our research shows that shoppers can’t always interpret the information quickly. Some also find the percentage format of GDAs difficult to understand and use. Our research is clear – it’s the use of traffic light colours that best help consumers to make healthier choices.

Surely it would be simple for traffic light colours to be added to GDA schemes and then the consumer gets the best of both worlds? This would reduce confusion and help shoppers to make healthier choices.

A new ad campaign launches on television this week highlighting our red, amber and green colour coding, which is now used by many manufacturers and retailers – including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Budgens/Londis, McCains and New Covent Garden Soup Co.

Alongside the TV ads, a series of press ads will run in a selection of tabloids and women’s weeklies, and six-sheet posters will be displayed outside various supermarkets as we seek to inform consumers about the scheme.

The FSA is committed to further developing front-of-pack labelling and we have already announced a new piece of scientific evaluation for 2007. This is in partnership with the DoH, the food industry and health organisations, and will explore how consumers are using the different schemes in the market. We are committed to standing by the outcome of this independent study and will encourage all manufacturers and retailers to adopt whatever system is shown to be the most effective in helping shoppers make healthier food choices.  

• Gill Fine, director of consumer choice and dietary health at the Food Standards Agency

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