There’s been quite a bit of talk recently about changing the way food products are labelled in an attempt to educate and encourage people to make healthier food choices.
Governments around the world are considering (and in some cases have already implemented) systems that provide ‘traffic light’ nutrition labels on food.
The general idea is that every food product you buy would have a label on the front advising you of the fat, sugar and sodium levels in terms of good (green), okay (amber), and too high (red).
It sounds like a good idea. The question is, will it work?
Traffic Light Labels
The primary idea behind traffic light labelling is to make it easier for the general public to choose healthier food options without the need for a lot of education.
By adding colour-coded labels to food, people will instantly know whether or not their food falls into a good, okay or not good category.
It also allows Governments and health promotion agencies to focus their attention on promoting the system rather than the larger job of providing nutrition education.
The idea of colour-coded food labels is quite good. Foods are assessed on the levels of fat, salt and sugar. Levels of each determine the colour-code of each category.
For example, a food that receives the green light in each category can be eaten regularly. A product that gets the red light should be avoided or, at the very least, eaten only on occasion. Amber foods can be consumed in moderation as they are neither high nor low.
Traffic Light Criteria
The criterion for categorising food is based on the amounts of fat, sugar and salt per 100gm. The 100gm measurement has been used for many years now to help people compare food products. Most of us have used this system at some time have compared two or three products to find the better option based on the nutritional content.
In essence, traffic light labels take this idea one step further. Colour-coding information on the front of the packet will make it so much easier to choose a healthier product.
The following table shows how the content of foods will be categorised:
Green Amber Red
Total fat per 100gm <3 gm 3.1-19.9gm >20gm
Saturated fat per 100gm < 5gm 5.1-14.9gm >15gm
Sugar per 100gm <5gm 5.1 -14.9gm >15gm
Sodium (salt) per 100gm 120mg 121-599mg >600mg
The Cancer Council of Victoria have actually released an application for the iPhone that compensates for the lack of movement by the government. Just search the iTunes app store under “Traffic Light Labelling.”
The Pros and Cons
As with many things, the traffic light system has both good and bad points.
While the system will help easier identification of good and not so good nutritional foods, the system doesn’t differentiate between healthy and unhealthy foods.
For example, many breakfast cereals may be perceived as healthy, but using the traffic light system they’ll get a green light for saturated fat, amber for sodium and a red light for sugar.
In this instance these foods are unhealthy but no labelling identifies them as such. However, people do need to use common sense. Even though a product may have two ‘green lights’ and one red light, consumers still need to understand that a high sugar content is inherently unhealthy.
As a health promotion exercise and an attempt to improve the obesity problem on both a national and international level, the traffic light system is a simple way to encourage us to be more conscious of the foods we choose.
As with many Government health initiatives, while the traffic light system may encourage people to be more selective about their food choices, there are those who will continue eat what they want regardless of its health impact.
Obesity is clearly an issue in the Western world. Anything that can be done to help improve the health and wellbeing of our population is always a good thing.
And while there may be some issues with traffic light labelling, encouraging people to choose healthier food options can and will have a positive impact on the health of our nation.
Written by Andrew Talati