Traffic light food labelling system given green light

traffic lightsA voluntary new universal food labelling system aimed at making it easier and quicker for consumers to make healthier food choices was announced yesterday by the government.

It is one of many initiatives that health ministers are hoping will be affective at reducing the billions of pounds the NHS lose annually due to the nation’s poor diet, leading to an ever-increasing number of obesity-related health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

The overhaul on how a product’s nutritional information is displayed was agreed upon by the government, food manufacturers and food retailers. The standardised front-of-label packaging will be introduced by December 2014 by those parties who have agreed to sign up to the changes.

Currently, food and drink manufacturers are not forced into stating nutritional information, and as such, those that do decide to state it can vary in what information they give. One of the biggest complaints consumers have about so many differing food labels is that they are simply confusing.

The vast variety of labels has been attributed to growing customer demand for more nutritional information; however there has never been an agreement on a consistent system for displaying this information – until now. The new labelling system will therefore enable people to compare similar foods to easier select the healthier option.

Presently, nutritional information can be stated either on the back, side or on the front of packaging. However, the new standardised labels for food and drink and drink products will be clearly displayed on the front of the product and consumers will be quickly able to see the amount of energy in kilojoules (kJ) contained, in addition to kilocalories (kcal) – known as calories, fat and saturated fat content, the amount of sugar and the amount of salt. ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’ will disappear and the amounts of each will now be explained as ‘Reference Intakes’.

Those amounts will be accompanied with how much of the maximum daily intake a portion of food accounts for. The already commonly used traffic light system for food labelling will be deemed the standard display for a quick glance at a product’s nutritional value in regards to fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt – Red means high, amber means medium and green means low.

The voluntary new scheme, part of the government’s ‘Responsibility Deal’, has received positive feedback from supermarkets and manufacturers that had showed disdain for changes in the past.

Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo, Premier Foods and McCain have all signed up, together with major supermarkets accounting for 60% of food sales in the UK; Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, the Co-operative and Waitrose.

Speaking about the new food labelling, Public Health Minister Anna Soubry said: “The UK already has the largest number of products using a front of pack label in Europe but we know that people get confused by the variety of labels that are used. Research shows that, of all the current schemes, people like this label the most and they can use the information to make healthier choices. We all have a responsibility to tackle the challenge of obesity, including the food industry. By having all major retailers and manufacturers signed up to the consistent label, we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food – this is why I want to see more manufacturers signing up and using the label.”

Which? Executive Director, Richard Lloyd, also commented about the issue, saying: “For years Which? has been calling for food companies to use traffic light labels so we welcome this big step forward towards making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices. With levels of obesity and diet-related disease on the increase, it’s vitally important that people know what is in their food, and this labelling scheme will encourage food companies to do more to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and fat in popular products. We hope that more food manufacturers will join the scheme so that their labels will be consistent and comparable to those on the front of the retailers’ own packs.”

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