Behind the labels: Easy-to-use traffic light system needed, say experts

Nina Lakhani
Sunday 31 August 2008 00:00

Health leaders have condemned Tory plans to abandon the acclaimed traffic light labelling guide which helps consumers easily avoid unhealthy foods.

Experts claim the Tory health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, has "sold out" to the food industry, which is opposed to the introduction of a mandatory easy-to-use labelling system.

Next week the Faculty of Public Health and National Heart Forum will write to British MEPs asking them to push hard for legislation that reflects the evidence rather than listening to "lobbying juggernauts" from the food industry.

There are calls for the Government to stop "pussyfooting" around and admit that voluntary regulation has failed to deliver the uniform and transparent system consumers want. Some experts believe that, if politicians are serious about tackling health inequalities, then legislation is the only way to make the industry behave responsibly.

Mr Lansley last week rejected the traffic light system and backed the food industry's preferred Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) system. He said the Government's obsession with the traffic light system had blocked progress in improving public health.

But, according to critics, the GDA system – which shows percentages of sugar, salt, fat and calories – is too complex and can mislead consumers, with its use of average builds and different portion sizes. The use of GDAs for "average" children is considered inappropriate by the British Dietetic Association.

Mr Lansley said: "The traffic light system teaches people to avoid certain junk foods, but provides only a fraction of the information people need. We support the European Commission, which is convinced a mandatory GDA system on the front of packs is the way forward. It's time for the Government to accept it and stop putting up road blocks."

He added: "I have seen what Unilever are doing to reduce the level of fats and sugars in their confectionery while giving people the taste they want ... Businesses want people to be healthier."

But health groups accuse Mr Lansley of ignoring a mass of evidence in favour of protecting big business's profits.

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said: "Andrew Lansley's speech was illogical. He talked about informing and empowering people but then backs a system most people struggle to understand ... Shoppers spend between four and 10 seconds choosing each product, so cramming in detailed information doesn't work."

He added: "His position is worrying, as it looks like the priority is working closely with big business rather than working to reduce health inequalities."

Traffic light labels are based on principles developed by the Food Standards Agency. They enable quick comparisons between products. The system has been adopted by a number of manufacturers and supermarkets, and has support from a large number of groups such as the consumers' association Which? and the British Medical Association.

In 2006 the GDA system was launched by a coalition of large companies including Tesco, Morrison and Nestlé. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) claims it is easy to understand and provides shoppers with more complete information.

Jane Holdsworth of the FDF says that research shows that its popularity among consumers is growing. She said: "We think the GDA system is the best solution because it is based on fact and does not demonise foods."

Jane Landon, the deputy chief executive of the National Heart Forum, disputed this. "Time and time again consumer research has shown people want a clear, visual, consistent scheme. So no matter where they shop and whatever brand they choose, they know what they are getting.

"The evidence for GDAs is poor, despite what the food industry would like us to believe ... It is very important to have a system everyone can understand, otherwise we will continue to widen the inequalities that already exist," she said.

Research conducted by The Independent on Sunday found a range of different labelling systems in use by the same supermarkets. Similar products were often labelled differently by each company, making it difficult to compare nutritional values. And adult GDAs were frequently spotted on foods marketed at children.

The Mend programme works with overweight children and their families across the UK and helps families to decipher food labels.

Paul Sacher, Mend's research director, said: "GDAs in general are very confusing. They are not useful for families or for children. It is impossible to keep a mental note throughout the day of how much fat or sugar each child has eaten. It is also impossible to compare products because they are based on different portion sizes."

He added: "The use of different front-of-pack labelling systems has been a total disaster. We have to tell families to totally ignore everything written on the front of packs because there are so many misleading messages. Without new legislation this will not change."

A major study to compare the different systems is due to report to the Government's Food Standards Agency early next year. Health groups expect it to come out in support of the traffic lights, but the FSA says it would still prefer to see change through a voluntary scheme.

'We were conned by the packets'

Lauren Brock, 11, and her father, Simon, from Wellington, Somerset, were confused by different food labelling systems. Simon, 39, said: "We always thought manufacturers weren't allowed to lie, so we would trust what we read on the front of packets and buy all these 'healthy' foods. As a busy parent, what are you supposed to believe?

"Last year Lauren started getting teased about her weight so we went to Mend's fit club, because I wanted make sure she was healthy and happy. It was only then I realised we'd been conned by these food labels and that these so-called 'healthy' foods were full of fat and sugar. We've been taught by Mend to ignore the front of packets. We've been shown what information to read on the back, so now Lauren is making healthy choices and feels much happier.

"I would love to see a simple system for the front of packets which didn't confuse ordinary people. Even very young children could use the traffic light system."

Exercise levels not to blame for obesity

Levels of physical activity have not fallen since the 1980s and cannot be blamed for the rise in obesity, according to new research published in the 'International Journal of Obesity'. Data from Holland and North America show people are using as much energy as they were 25 years ago. The growing incidence of obesity is likely to be down to changes in the quantity and type of food people have been eating.

Researchers at Aberdeen and Maastricht universities examined data measuring physical activity expenditure and found there was no reduction in the amount of energy used since 1980. Meanwhile, rates of obesity have quadrupled in the UK. In England, 25 per cent of men and women were classified as clinically obese in 2006, while 45 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women were overweight.

These findings contradict previous research and anecdotal evidence which suggests that the obesity epidemic in developed nations is partly down to a decline in exercise. The data also seem at odds with the fact the obese are less active than their lean counterparts. But, while obese people may move less, the research shows they use up more energy when they do.

The study also shows daily energy use among Western adults remains in line with their counterparts in developing countries.

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