The ideal front-of-pack labelling scheme – yeah right

In the great obesity debate front of pack nutrition labelling is often hailed as is the bold new hope to guide consumers towards healthier food options. The “traffic light” concept is the one most of us would be familiar with but actually there are a host of different options.

Recent research* amongst food companies in New Zealand indicates that manufacturers are not keen on the adoption of a standardised front of pack nutrition labelling system and would only do so if it was mandatory.

The preferred (though not universally preferred) option is “percent dietary intake” labelling, with many companies having already adopted it. The same system is being adopted by our Aussie counterparts and a quick scan of any supermarket will show you that it is relatively common. As a system, this option regards single foods as part of an overall diet, letting people select foods and beverages according to their own individual intake. By contrast the traffic light system is thought to rather inflexibly label foods as good or bad.

A criticism of the traffic light and other similar schemes such as ‘Pick the Tick’ is that they are interpretive schemes, which do place a nutritional value judgment on individual foods and beverages, without a total diet approach. In fact one of the pitfalls of the traffic light system is that if people only ate foods with green labels they would run the risk of not meeting their daily requirements for some nutrients – possibly protein, calcium and iron in particular.

If a traffic light system is made mandatory it will be impossible to apply it in the same way across all of the food and beverage offerings available in our supermarkets. It is likely that it would need to be complicatedly calibrated by sector (as with the current Pick the Tick scheme), which often leads to confusion and complaint. For example how would you compare the nutritional value of a sausage with the nutritional value of peanut butter?

The research, undertaken last year on behalf of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA), canvassed the views of 16 major New Zealand food companies (including one retail chain) about front of pack nutrition labelling. The research report is publicly available on the NZFSA website. The people interviewed represented 17 separate categories within the diverse food and beverage industry. These are all people who know their products and their consumers very well, and by trial and error over the years as well as through experience, they know what encourages people to buy products, and what doesn’t.

Consumer research undertaken in Europe last year where versions of traffic light labelling have been in place for a while, shows that consumers are confused about traffic light labelling. They know what green means, but not what red means, mistakenly thinking these products should be avoided completely. In comparison, they understand better the concept of “guideline daily amounts” – the equivalent of our “percent dietary intake” labels.

Manufacturers in New Zealand are not just pushing back on traffic light labelling for the sake of it. They agree with health authorities that New Zealanders should eat more healthfully and they want their customers to eat well. The research also found that our major food and beverage manufacturers are actually doing incredible amounts of work behind the scenes to make foods healthier without consumers knowing about it. The last thing they want is for consumers to know the food is getting healthier, because then people wont buy it! It seems an odd sort of logic, but years of experience has proven this to be true.

Food and beverage manufacturers have been developing and marketing healthier products for some time now, but sadly consumers often don’t flock to buy these products. More often than not, it is the brave new healthier product that sits on supermarket shelves and is eventually de-listed – leaving the manufacturing company with another expensive product development and marketing “experience” to add to the stockpile.

Common sense, and any market research will tell you – price and taste remain the main determinants of any consumer food and beverage choice. Only a small proportion of the population will buy products with health as their primary motivator. As a dietitian married to a doctor, our weekly family shopping is probably more motivated by health than most’s, but I have to say we don’t buy healthy foods unless they are likely to taste good, be accepted by the kids and are not likely to be thrown in the bin at the end of the week. Occasionally I do buy a treat, and when I do I want the real thing, not a “healthified” version.

The Food Regulation Standing Committee (FRSC) for Australia and New Zealand has drafted a set of policy guidelines on front of pack labelling for the Ministerial Council to consider in May 2009. The draft guidelines are currently open for public consultation with comment due by 24th March. I would urge all to make comment if you have views on this matter.

* Declaration of interest: I was part of the research team for the NZFSA research referred to in this article.
A special thanks goes out to the many Foodtalk readers who took part in this research.

Categories: Food Industry, Nutrition and Health

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