Olive oil producers and other European food industry members have said they’re concerned about the UK’s traffic-light food labelling system because their products would be labelled as unhealthy.
But nutrition labels are seen in some circles as important in providing dietary information to help consumers make informed healthy food choices. Labels may be the only source of nutritional information available to the consumer at the point of purchase, therefore it’s important the information is easy to find, read, interpret and understand.
More than 130 UK food businesses now display display nutrition information voluntarily. Currently four main formats are used in the UK, and these have many hybrids.
Over the past decade, many studies investigating consumer understanding of nutrition labelling have been carried out in the UK and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) led a series of studies in 2009-10 with consumers and industry stakeholders to consider the standardisation of labelling on front of packs.
This led to the key elements considered important by consumers: guideline daily amounts (GDA), traffic light colours, nutritional values as text, standardised portion sizes and values per 100g.
In June 2010 the European Parliament backed a proposal for more uniform food labelling in the European Union. They rejected the traffic light colour coding system, opting instead for GDAs for front of pack nutrition labelling in line with the majority of current food industry practice in the UK and Europe.
Now, we finally seem to have got agreement in the UK, and for the first time the major retailers are working with the FSA and Department of Health and have come up with an agreed front of pack labeling system.
GDAs will be replaced by reference intakes and detailed industry specific guidelines have been prepared, with defined limits of what may be considered a low, medium and high with different cut off points for food and drinks.
The UK food industry has been preparing for this move for a number of years and has been busy reformulating products so that they are less in the red zone, for example using salt substitutes in foods and the addition of sugar substitutes to fizzy drinks.
And with the amount of information that supermarkets have on our shopping habits, it can’t be too long before they are using data analytics from labelling information to help steer us in healthier directions.
But it’s not completely straightforward. For example, olive oil, despite it being widely considered as a healthy choice because it’s high in unsaturated fats, would still be labelled with a red light.
Other products such as cheese and butter would also come under red. Tthe guidance recognises this and notes that these and other products such as nuts and oily fish will have a red light due to the presence of naturally occurring fats. It is recommended that these products state the amount of saturated fats, to indicate to consumers the balance of fats and also highlight particular benefits of their products in line with EU Health claims.
Whether we chose to differentiate between different red light foods remains to be seen. We are human after all.