Food labels – are customers finally getting a system they understand?
After spending a decade debating food labelling, the UK government has introduced a new consistent system of front-of-pack food labelling with the aim of making it easier for consumers to make healthier choices.
The new labels will be rolled out across many of the major food groups over the next 12 months, with all organisations that have signed up to it having the standardised systems in place by December 2014.
What will the new food labelling system look like?
The new, standardised food labels will be presented on the front of food and drink products. A combination of colour coding and nutritional information will show how much fat, salt, sugar and calories are in each product. The inclusion of colour coding, as represented by traffic light labelling (TLL) is considered key as research shows that consumers prefer TLL because it offers basic information "at a glance" (1).
This is what the new style of labels will look like:
As standard, the information that will be included per portion of food includes:
- the amount of energy / calories
- the amount of fat and saturated fat
- the amount of sugar
- the amount of salt
These amounts will be shown as Reference Intakes and will show how much of the maximum daily intake a portion of food accounts for.
Red, amber and green colour-coding will visually illustrate the nutritional value of food portions;
- red means high
- amber means medium
- green means low
The more green(s) a product contains, the healthier the choice.
Are all foods covered?
The system is and will remain voluntary, therefore not all foods are included. However, businesses that have signed up to using the new label account for more than 60% of the food that is sold in the UK. The companies that have agreed to change their labels include:
Some of the major manufacturers that haven’t signed up to the new system are Coca-Cola and Cadbury, both stating their preference for the use of guideline daily amounts. However, as a result of many of the major food manufacturers and retailers making the changes, it is hoped that other companies will adopt the new labelling system on their packaging.
Why has there been a push for consistent front-of-pack labelling?
Consumers were confused by the multiple labels that previously existed and found it difficult to ascertain if a product was healthy or not. It is anticipated that the introduction of ‘traffic light’ colours will help consumers understand more about the food they eat, particularly the levels of nutrients. A consistent scheme across all the major supermarkets means wherever you shop you will see the same front-of-pack labelling. This should help improve consumers’ understanding of the label and make healthier choices easier.
It is also hoped that a clear and consistent system of food labelling will help combat obesity. Across the UK 25% of men and 26% of women are categorised as obese (2). Around 23% of children in reception and 34% in year6 are either overweight or obese, with approximately 9.5% and 19%, respectively, obese (3). By 2050 obesity is predicted to affect around 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children (4).
Obesity is associated with a range of health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The resulting NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year (4).These serious illnesses could be prevented by making small changes to our diets, thereby improving our health, and clearer food labels are a step in the right direction
Let’s hope that this new, consistent food labelling system will succeed in helping the nation understand food labels and encourage them to buy more ‘green’ products and leave the ‘red’ products on the shelves.
Written by Ailbhe Bhreathnach