- Traffic light food labels, like in the UK, found to encourage healthy eating
- The written warning was good to discourage people from making unhealthy choices
- More than 30,000 Britons die each year from dietary health conditions
- Experts say food manufacturers will now have to put food health labels on all products
Scientists say the nutrition labels of traffic lights in front of biscuits and crisps work and help people eat healthier.
Color-coded markers found on the front of pre-made foods are a familiar site in supermarkets and corner stores.
Ministers urged manufacturers to adopt packaging labels a decade ago, in an effort to tackle rising rates of obesity by marking products high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.
However, critics of the time warned that it would not work because it was too simple, with foods containing helpful fats, such oily fish, being removed from the system, while others such as diet fizzy drinks received a free pass. .
Now an international analysis into the public health impact of health warnings on the package front has backed the system.
UK-like food packaging label warnings found to be an effective way to encourage people to eat healthier, new research finds
Colour coded food warning systems, such as those used in the UK, were found to be good at encouraging people to eat better, while written warnings were found to be better in discouraging people from choosing unhealthy food and drinks.
The results have prompted campaigners to expand the UK system, which is currently voluntary.
Analysts reviewed 134 studies that measured how effective a food packaging health warning was at encouraging people to make healthier choices.
These studies were conducted between 1990 and 2021 and were from Europe, Latin America and North America.
Two of these were traffic-style systems – the UK and Nutri-Score – used in some EU countries, such as France and Germany.
The other two were written warning systems that were used in Chile and California, where, for example, a drink with added sugar would have a label saying it could contribute to obesity and tooth decay.
The researchers found that all four systems encourage people to eat healthier. But there were some differences.
Color-coded labels such as traffic light systems encouraged people to make healthier food and drink choices.
Written warning systems were better at discouraging people from buying unhealthy items, according to results published in PLOS Medicine.
Dr Jing Song of Queen Mary University, London, said the results should serve as a wake-up call for food manufacturers, with the system being extended to menus as well.
“Food manufacturers must now join efforts to improve the nation’s health by putting front-of-pack labels on all of their food and beverage products and menus,” she said.
Mharry Brown, policy manager for the campaign group Action on Salt and Sugar, welcomed the research and said the UK government should work to expand the system.
‘This research provides clear evidence that labeling works,’ she said.
‘We are now urging the government to make labeling mandatory on all products because it will force manufacturers to show consumers, at a glance, if the product is healthy or less healthy – and hopefully reduce the levels of salt, sugar and will be encouraged to make improvements to reduce Saturated fat.’
The government has to respond to a National Food Strategy report prepared by Westminster Food Tsar Henry Dimbleby to tackle the nation’s obesity.
This included plans for a ‘snack tax’ on salty and sweet food – although Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea outright.
Another suggestion in the strategy was for a new law that requires food companies with more than 250 employees to provide an annual report on the amount of food they sell that is high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
According to the authors of the new research, around 8 million deaths occurred worldwide from poor dietary choices such as high salt intake and low whole grain intake.
And the National Food Strategy Report identified that poor diet contributed to 64,000 deaths a year in England.
The UK’s color code system assesses food on four categories, quality fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Foods are lighted ‘red’ for saturated fat if they contain more than 5 percent saturated fat, ‘amber’ between 1.6 and 5 percent; and ‘green’ for 1.5 percent or less saturated fat.
For sugar, it is ‘red’ if it makes up more than 22.5 percent of the food, ‘amber’ between 5.1 and 22.5 percent, and ‘green’ if it makes up 5 percent or less. For salt, it is ‘red’ if foods are more than 1.5 percent salt, ‘amber’ if between 0.4 and 1.5 percent, and ‘green’ if 0.3 percent or less.
But critics of the system have pointed out that it is too simplistic, with some of the healthy eating qualities overlooked by the traffic light system.
For example a chocolate trifle and a tub of Greek yogurt score the same on the traffic light system.
This is despite having more added sugar than yogurt and having fewer health benefits, such as a more calcium-rich trifle.
What should a balanced diet look like?
According to the NHS, meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains.
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Foods based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains
• 30 grams of fiber a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruits and vegetables, 2 biscuits of whole wheat cereal, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and a large baked potato with skin
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks), choose low-fat and low-sugar options
• Eat some legumes,…