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food experts respond to FSA announcement on traffic light coding for food labelling

The government’s food watchdog says traffic light coding is the best way for consumers to pick healthy options, our nutritionists and food scientists give their views.

Susan Jebb, Head of Human Nutrition Research at the Medical Research Council, said:

“Many consumers want to eat healthily and need clear information to do so. Present labelling gives factual information on content but lacks interpretation eg is 2 g salt in a can of soup a little or a lot? The FSA multiple traffic light scheme will address this but front of pack labelling is only part of an overall strategy to improve diet. As other initiatives raise awareness and motivation to eat well, good labelling is essential to guide food choices.”

Tom Sanders, Head of the Research Division of Nutritional Sciences at Kings College London, said:

“Consumers generally preferred the labelling with Guideline Dietary Amounts, which as a nutritionist I prefer because it takes into account the serving size and relates it to the target intake. However, the agency is favouring the multiple traffic lights system that is based on arbitrary cut off points which the FSA have made up and have no strong scientific base especially as they do not take into account the varying water content of different foods or the amounts in a serving.”

Sue Baic, lecturer in Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Bristol, said:

“It’s really important we have clear, accurate and consistent messages on food and that is absolutely not the case at the moment. What is needed is something that busy people can use at a glance while shopping However labeling is only one step towards making the healthy choice the easy choice and if healthier foods are more difficult to get or are unappealing labeling won’t work.”

Peter Berry-Ottoway, consultant in food science, said:

“My personal feeling, having been involved in this debate for several years, is that it’s an interesting idea but badly thought out. For example, what label would you put on Benecol, a “yellow fat” margarine with beneficial effects for cholesterol, yet it would presumably come out bright “red”. Similarly with new margarines containing omega-3 fatty acids, which label would they get? Basically it comes down to what dieticians and nutritionists have been saying for many years; individual foods aren’t bad, it’s the diets.”

Albert Flynn, professor in Nutrition Sciences at University College Cork and Chair of the European Food Safety Authority scientific panel, said:

“Any new labelling system must be based on research into how consumers respond. Too often people assume to understand consumers reactions without actually testing their purchasing behaviour – after all, changing purchasing behaviour is the goal. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that poorly-researched labelling may cause people to opt for less healthy choices. And oversimplifying information may also patronise the public who are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.”

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