Traffic light nutrition labels on the front of cookies and crisps work and help people eat healthier, scientists insist.
Color-coded markers found on the front of pre-made foods are a familiar site in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Ministers urged manufacturers to adopt front-of-package labels a decade ago, in a bid to fight spiraling obesity rates by flagging products high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.
However, critics at the time warned that it wouldn’t work because it was too simplistic, with foods containing useful fats, such as oily fish, falling against the system while others, like diet sodas, were given a free pass.
Now, an international analysis of the public health impact of front-of-package health warnings supports the system.
Warnings on food packaging labels, such as those in the UK, have been shown to be an effective way to encourage people to eat healthier, new research shows
Color-coded food warning systems, like the one used in the UK, have been shown to be effective in encouraging people to eat better, while written warnings have been shown to be better at discouraging people from choosing food and drink unhealthy.
The results prompted campaigners to call for the UK system, which is currently voluntary, to be extended.
Analysts reviewed 134 studies that measured the effectiveness of health warnings on food packaging in encouraging people to make healthier choices.
These studies were conducted between 1990 and 2021 and came from Europe, Latin America and North America.
Two of these were traffic-type systems – the UK’s and Nutri-score – which are used in some EU countries, such as France and Germany.
The other two were written warning systems used in Chile and California, where, for example, a drink with added sugar will have a label saying it could contribute to obesity and tooth decay.
All four systems have been shown to encourage people to eat healthier, the researchers found. But there were some differences.
Color-coded labels, such as the traffic light system, encouraged people to choose healthier meals and drinks.
While written warning systems were more effective in discouraging people from buying unhealthy items, according to findings published in the PLOS Medicine.
Dr Jing Song of Queen Mary University in London said the findings should serve as a wake-up call to food manufacturers, adding that the system should be extended to menus as well.
“Food manufacturers must now participate in efforts to improve the health of the country by committing to affix front-of-package labels on all their food and drink products and on menus,” he said. she declared.
Action on Salt and Sugar campaign group policy director Mhairi Brown praised the research and said the UK government should act 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, as this would require manufacturers to show consumers, at a glance, whether the product is healthier or less healthy – and we hope to encourage them to reformulate to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat levels. ‘
The government must respond to the report on the national food strategy drawn up by Westminster food czar Henry Dimbleby to tackle the country’s obesity.
It included plans for a “snack tax” on salty and sweet foods – although Boris Johnson rejected the idea outright.
Another suggestion in the strategy was a new law requiring food companies with more than 250 employees to report annually on the amount of foods they sell that are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
According to the authors of the new research, nearly 8 million deaths worldwide are due to poor food choices, such as high salt intake and low whole grain intake.
And the National Food Strategy report identified that a poor diet contributes to 64,000 deaths per year in England.
The UK color coding system rates foods into four categories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Foods receive a “red” light for saturated fat if they contain more than 5% saturated fat, “amber” between 1.6 and 5%; and “green” for 1.5% or less saturated fat.
For sugar, it is “red” if it represents more than 22.5% of the food, “amber” between 5.1 and 22.5% and “green” if it represents 5% or less. As for salt, it is “red” if the food contains more than 1.5% salt, “amber” between 0.4 and 1.5% and “green” if 0.3% or less.
But critics of the system have pointed out that it is too simplistic, with the merits of some healthy foods being ignored by the traffic light system.
For example, a chocolate trifle and a pot of Greek yogurt get the same result on the traffic light system.
This despite the trifle containing more added sugar and having fewer health benefits, such as more calcium, than yogurt.
WHAT DOES A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains.
• 30 grams of fiber per day: it’s like eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole grain cookies, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and a large baked potato with the skin on.
• Have dairy or dairy alternatives (like soy drinks) by choosing options that are low in fat and sugar.
• Eat beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish per week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume in small amounts.
• Drink 6 to 8 cups / glasses of water per day
• Adults should consume less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men per day.
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide