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Do Food Labels Inform, Educate, Deceive or Mislead - Traffic Lights Off or On

Updated on November 15, 2016
janderson99 profile image

Dr John uses his Biochemistry & Physiology research background (PhD) to develop authoritative reviews of dieting, weight loss, obesity, food

There is a lot of tail-chasing around the world at the moment as various countries are reviewing their food labelling regulations.

Most of the debate centres on whether the labels should be on the front of the pack, rather than the side or back, and whether the 'traffic lights' labelling system should be used.

A Traffic light rating system is a simple method for showing the level of a food component using the familiar 'green', 'amber' (yellow), and 'red' of traffic signals.

Food sold pre-packed can be labelled with a traffic light label that shows the proportions of saturated fats, sugar, fat and salt. The familiar traffic light signals represent scores of high ('red'), medium ('yellow') and low ('green') percentages for each of these ingredients.

Foods with 'green' labels are generally 'healthier' and to be preferred over those with 'red' labels, with 'amber' ones in between. These labels, located on the front of the package, are much easier to see and interpret than the common Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling which is generally also shown on the side, or back of the packet.

The Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) has been criticised as being very difficult for many people to understand, including children, and does not provide quick comparisons between products on the shelves.

The use of traffic light labelling is supported by many doctor groups including the British Medical Association and has been generally welcomed by consumers. A number of supermarkets and food manufacturers in the UK are using traffic light colours on the labels of some products.

However some in the food industry have expressed concern that the "red" foods would be shunned by consumers. But the Food Standards Agency and the British Medical Association and others claim that consumers generally interpret the labels sensibly. Consumers realise they can still buy and eat the red foods as a "treat". The colour coding is much easier to understand than lists of percentages.

EU Food Labels - 'Traffic Lights Switched Off'

However in June 2010 the EU switched off ‘traffic light’ food labels. The Parliament decided to adopt front-of-pack food labelling that is very similar to the system used by Australia’s food industry.

Under the EU decision, companies will now use Guideline Daily Amounts to label the energy, sugar, salt and fat content on the front of food packages, as well as protein, unsaturated fats and fibre.

This is a very similar model to Australia’s daily intake guide front-of-pack labelling system which lists the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a recommended serve of the food and what this represents as a proportion of average daily intake.

The Australian Food Label System is shown below.

Labels in USA

In January 2011 the US food industry took pre-emptive acton in the fight over front-of-package (FOP) calorie and nutrition content labelling. It has put forth its own voluntary scheme, 'Nutrition Keys' which the industry hopes to head off the alternative and possibly much more stringent scheme yet to be developed by the US Food and Drug Administration.

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama requested that industry develop front-of-pack labels that could be widely adopted on food packages. These labels would help busy shoppers - especially parents - make informed decisions when they shop to choose healthier products.

The new plan — called Nutrition Keys — proposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute in US, uses a multi-tab logo to display the calorie count per serving, and the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar up front.

Moving the nutrition information to the front from the back or side, where Nutrition Facts now appear, is a major improvement.

Nutrition Keys is a fact-based system for summarizing key nutrition information in a clear, simple and easy-to-use format on labels for food and beverage packages. The new icon and label changes, follow current U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and guidelines. The four basic icons represent key nutrients which should be limited in the diet:

  • calories,
  • saturated fat,
  • sodium
  • sugars.

The four basic icons are always presented together as a consistent set:

As an option, certain labels could include postitive messages referring to “nutrients to encourage”, that is nutrients that may need supplementing to build up a “nutrient-dense” and balanced diet. Two extra “nutrients to encourage” can be added, including: potassium, fibre, protein, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. These extra nutrients can only be added to a package when the product has more than 10 percent of the daily value per serving of the nutrient. Also the extra item has to meets the FDA requirement that the food is a “good source” for the nutrient.

Many have criticised this, because it shifts the emphasis from listing “the bad stuff” to the less important vitamins and other positive elements of the components.

What food makers fear most, say critics, is the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) power to make them list more of the “negatives” in highly-processed foods.

Others have claimed that the industry move is a blatant attempt to preempt Federal food labelling requirements. Many consumer groups view the program with skepticism, given the poor record of food manufacturers in providing nutrition information in the past. The industry’s previous initiative — Smart Choices — was scrapped in 2009 after critics complained it was too lenient and misleading.

Indeed, Smart Choices was infamous for classifying 'Fruit Loops' as a smart choice for breakfast, and listing ice cream as a health food because it was a good source of Calcium.

While Nutrition Keys is a major advance over Smart Choices, the FDA may still have the final say on the new nutrition labels.

It has been reported that the industry’s plan has received a guarded response from Mrs. Obama. This was in stark contrast to her enthusiastic support of a healthful eating initiative from Walmart, which pledged to redevelop its store-brand foods and introduce easy-to-understand labels which highlighted foods which were more healthful.

In a statement, the White House stated that the labelling initiative was a good first step but added that it would “look forward to future improvement” in the system. It said the FDA would closely review the Nutrition Keys system to assess whether it met the needs of American consumers.

The FDA has said it was interested in the British labelling system using a traffic signal logo to show unfavourable (red) and favourable (green) nutrient content. However the Food Industry has strongly resisted this system, which it fears might drive consumers away from 'red' labelled items.

Walmart Commitment to new Labels

Walmart announced in a press conference in late January 2011, that it will reduce added salt content by 25 % and added sugar content by 10 % for its home-brand food products by 2015. Walmart alaso stated that it was committed to lowering trans-fats and partially hydrogenated oils in its home-brand food products. Other parts of Wlamart's plan include:

Walmart Press Release extract
Walmart Press Release extract

Labels in Australia

The Australian Food labelling laws are under review and this could change the information currently on food labels (see images above). An expert panel is reviewing various aspects including whether Australia should consider simplified ''traffic light'' labels. The food industry and health groups are polarised on the traffic light display systems that would use red, amber and green to signal the level of a food product's potentially unhealthy ingredients such as fat, sugar and salt.

The food industry has dismissed the system as overly simplistic and misleading, whereas the health groups argue that such simple label systems are just what is needed to control the obesity epidemic.

It is ironic that the EU has moved away from the traffic lights system towards the Australian system, just when Australia is considering adopting them.

A recent survey by the Cancer Council of Victoria, Australia, showed that about 87 % of consumers were in favour of the traffic-light labels, while they were opposed by 77 % of the food industry submissions to the review panel.

Kate Carnell, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, has highlighted the European Union's abandonment of traffic-light labelling in 2010. Ms Carnell said that, following the EU decision, companies would label the energy, salt, sugar and fat content on the front of food packages with guidelines for daily intake that closely resembled the current Australian system. The daily intake guide labelling system (see above) lists the amount of energy, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt in a recommended serve of the food, and its proportion of average daily intake.

It has been reported that Europe's food industry spent more than €1 billion fighting for the demise of the traffic-light labels.

The Food Labelling Review Panel raised several issues in its recent consultation paper:

  • Is it appropriate for food labelling to be used to support government health strategies such as healthy eating campaigns?
  • Can the food industry be relied on to self-regulate the food labelling system?
  • How can we make sure consumers can read and understand food labels?

The Consumer Advocate group 'Choice' listed several demands for better food labelling in their submission to the review, including:

Arguments Supporting the Traffic Lights Food Labelling System

It has been argued that while the Australian Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) is an excellent resource for health professionals and for the better educated and highly motivated consumers, it has the following usage problems:

  • It is too time consuming for most adults to use
  • It is also too difficult for adults with limited numeracy or literacy, including those from a non-English speaking background.
  • It is too difficult for most children to use

Similar usage issues apply to the Percentage Daily Intake Labelling system put forward by the food industry.

The suggested advantages of the Traffic Light Labelling system are:

  • It is intuitive, easily understood way of conveying information on healthy food choices.
  • It is much easier to compare food items on the shelves using the colours, rather than having to read the details of the labels
  • Almost all people (including young children) understand the significance of red, amber, and green traffic lights,
  • It is a much better guide for people to select foods to meet their requirements, and aligns with advice given on healthy diets
  • It can have a significant effect on the behaviour of consumers and will help them moderate their intake of foods high in fat and sugar.
  • A general educational campaign could be based on the system aimed at convincing people of the benefits of healthy eating and ways to avoid of obesity. The traffic light labelling of foods provides a user-friendly tool to enable the good intentions and advice to be put into practice.

Are the Traffic Lights to go Off or ON for Food Labels Worldwide?

It seems the Dog is Chasing Is Tail!


Australia gets a new Food Labels Hierarchy and a Traffic Lights System

The Review Panel conducting the Independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy in Australia released its report on 28 January 2011 entitled:

Labelling Logic

The recommendations are built on a risk based Food Labelling Issues Hierarchy, in descending order of priority from food safety, preventative health, new technologies and consumer values issues. The diagram below illustrates where rules and oversight should lie and provides the basis for the recommended Principles to guide food labelling decisions. The Report recommends a range of regulatory interventions based on this hierarchy, ranging from mandatory, through co-regulation and self-regulation.


The Major Findings for the Traffic Lights System


It remains to be seen if these recommendations from the Review Panel in Australia are implemented, and how other countries, the EU and USA will respond.

© janderson99-HubPages

© 2011 Dr. John Anderson


Submit a Comment

  • butterflystar profile image

    butterflystar 6 years ago from A Place of Success :)

    I personally would Like the labeling of GMO foods, genetically engineered foods, seems we the people, could sue, for the genetically modified foods being introduced into the population without labeling and without educating the public so i think labeling is definitely deceptive, not to mention trans fats, what a joke.

    Great Article :)

  • profile image

    Johnny 6 years ago

    It remains to be seen that another system that effectively makes people less thoughtful about food will make a positive difference. For example, certain fats and sugars are very useful in the diet and particularly good in the morning to get you through the day. Under this system they would be flagged red?

  • Pixienot profile image

    Pixienot 6 years ago from Clarksville, Indiana

    Great hub. I vote for Traffic Lights and classes to teach folks how to read them, held IN the stores.

    Voted up and awesome.

  • LiamBean profile image

    LiamBean 6 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

    Excellent read.

    I'm not sure where I stand on this. I read the nutritional information on any product I've not purchased before, but I notice that many (if not most) people don't. I care what I eat, but it is time consuming to read the labels.

    The reason I'm not sure where I stand is that if so many people don't bother to read the information how is moving its location going to help?

    Two cents for what they are worth.