This week, six of the world’s largest food manufacturers announced that they will be launching a task force to look at developing a front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme.
At first glance, this all sounds quite positive – particularly as they say that they will use traffic light labelling.
But when you look at the small print, there’s a crucial element that undermines this new proposal.
The six manufacturers want to integrate portion-size criteria into the existing UK traffic light scheme.
The current UK scheme was developed by the government, following a lot of discussions across the food industry and with consumer and public health groups.
It uses traffic light colours on the front of packs to tell consumers whether a product is high, medium or low in fat, sugar or salt.
It also gives information on how much of these a portion contains and what this means in terms of the contribution to your reference intake (%RI). This helps you get an idea of how significant eating the product is, relative to other things you might eat that day.
All food retailers have committed to use these on their own-brand products, as well as Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé and Pepsico, who, along with Unilever and Mondelez, are part of this latest announcement.
What is really important, however, is that the current traffic light colours are based on per 100g or per 100ml of the product.
This is because different manufacturers use different portion sizes for similar products.
You may also eat a different amount compared to what is recommended.
Some people’s intakes of some of the products these manufacturers produce – whether that’s chocolate, tomato ketchup or breakfast cereal – can vary a lot, and even be different depending on the occasion.
Sometimes you may also want to compare across different types of products, too – for example, the salt or fat levels in different sandwich fillings or types of snack, or the sugar content in yogurts, puddings and ice cream.
There’s also an issue of just how realistic company portion sizes are.
On the one hand, companies don’t want to encourage us to overindulge, particularly when the main motivation for the labelling is to help people make healthier choices.
But on the other, they need to reflect how much we’re likely to eat.
One scheme for all
These issues aren’t new. They were hotly debated when the UK scheme was first developed.
It was decided that using the scheme to enable comparisons on a like-for-like basis was best.
Criteria were added to take account of particularly large portions so that they didn’t come out as looking healthier than was the case, given how much you eat (ready meals, for example).
We don’t need a small-portion criteria that will do the reverse – making unhealthy foods look healthier than is really the case.
We’ve spent a lot of time designing a nutrition labelling scheme.
Other formats have also been suggested to complement the traffic light scheme – such as spoonfuls of sugar on the front of pack.
But we think that these manufacturers should just get on with the job: stop trying to devise a new scheme that will make their products look more favourable and use the current traffic light one, so we all know what we’re eating.
What do you think about the new suggestion for front-of-pack food labelling? What type of products do you find the current traffic light scheme most useful for?