Leading article: Healthy eating made complicated

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The Independent Online

Why is it that relatively simple and sensible ideas take so unconscionably long to put into practice? The latest example is the so-called "traffic-lights" system of food labelling that would colour-code processed food with red, yellow or green circles, according to its fat, saturate, sugar and salt content.

Some 12 weeks ago, the Food Standards Agency launched a public consultation about whether manufacturers should be asked to adopt this system. It had come top of a survey in which people were asked to choose between four possible schemes. The second choice, with nutritional content shown in figures and colours, was also included in the consultation.

Yesterday, the FSA yesterday announced that it would recommend the "traffic lights" as the so-called industry standard. Unfortunately, however, this seems unlikely to happen. First, because the FSA has no power to impose this labelling; the standard will be only voluntary. Second, because five major manufacturers, including the food giants, Kraft, Danone and PepsiCo, have opted for a more complex labelling system which shows guideline daily amounts of salt, fat etc. And third, because Tesco, the dominant supermarket chain, has opted for a similar system tabulating the content of salt, sugar, saturated fat etc and how this relates to the recommended daily intake. Tesco said that customers found the amber marking confusing.

Just as confusing, perhaps, as they find the amber light at real traffic lights? Or as confusing as the food manufacturers and supermarkets would like them to? We find it hard not to suspect a perverse concern to make less healthy foods - with their often higher profit-margins - more difficult to identify than they would be under the traffic-lights labelling.

It could be argued that any agreed labelling system would be better than the confusion that exists at present. Nutritional content is often posted in the minutest of print and in technical detail that requires a science degree to interpret. Only where dietary information is the main selling point - fat-free, sugar-free, gluten free etc - is the information readily decipherable. Even the supposedly simplified system of labelling chosen by Tesco requires time and knowledge to interpret.

At a time when the Government and the medical establishment take every opportunity to warn us about obesity and unhealthy eating, and when the population at large is more concerned than ever before about food quality, there is great merit in a consistent system of labelling that is simple and direct. Regrettably, the "traffic lights" labels, where they are introduced, could now add just one more variable to the already muddled mix.