Truth in food labelling

Nutrition claims on food labels often don't tell the full story.
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02.Better food labels for consumers


As part of our ongoing work on food labelling, CHOICE made a detailed submission to the independent food labelling law and policy review panel in 2010, highlighting seven demands for better food labels to help consumers make informed choices about their food - how healthy it is, where it comes from, and how it’s been produced. The panel's report was released in January and includes 61 recommendations. The government is set to respond to these recommendations in December.

For more balanced information about the healthiness of packaged food, CHOICE is calling for the introduction of traffic light labelling to provide consumers with at-a-glance nutrition information about the food they purchase. See CHOICE's Better Food Labelling campaign for more details.

Why traffic light labelling should get the green light

Some manufacturers use percentage daily intake (%DI) labelling systems to provide you with more information – often in conjunction with nutrition claims – however these systems have limitations.

First and foremost, they require you to undertake onerous calculations and estimations of your likely intake of nutrients from all foods that you may eat throughout the day – something that’s not quick or easy, even with a handy app on your iPhone. In addition, the daily intake values on which the %DI system is based aren’t relevant to the entire population, as energy and nutrient needs vary depending on age, gender and physical activity levels, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Another weakness of the %DI system is that it’s based on manufacturer-determined serve sizes that are open to manipulation and may not reflect the serve sizes that you eat in reality.

In contrast, traffic light labelling enables you to make healthy choices at a glance by providing visual and interpretive information about whether products contain high, moderate or low levels of the key nutrients of public health concern – total fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. Importantly, research has shown that shoppers are more likely to correctly identify healthy foods using the traffic light system than using other systems (including %DI).

In the UK, about a third of products carry nutrient traffic lights. The system, while still voluntary, is used by two of the four major supermarkets, as well as by manufacturers including McCain.

Does a red light mean no go?

A red traffic light doesn’t necessarily mean don’t buy - it’s a visual indicator that a product is high in a less desirable nutrient, prompting you to perhaps take a closer look at the ingredients list. You may just need to be conscious of how much of, and how often, you eat the product rather than avoid it altogether.

A red light for total fat on a muesli bar, for example, may indicate a high nut (and therefore ‘good fat’) content rather than an overload of less beneficial added fats – which you can confirm by checking what’s higher up on the ingredients list. And a red light for sugar on an ice-cream emblazoned with fat free claims ensures that you’re also aware of its ‘not so healthy’ attributes before you buy.

Shame the claim

Have you been seduced by nutrient or health claims only to find on closer inspection that the food doesn't live up to its healthy image? Support CHOICE's Better Food Labelling campaign by sending us examples of products where the claims don’t tell the whole nutritional story.


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