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Traffic light labels – solution to the obesity epidemic or missing the point?

Today, the Government introduced a new and consistent system of nutritional labelling for manufactured foods.  The combination of traffic lights to indicate low, medium and high levels of key nutrients with a percentage of the guideline daily amount of each nutrient provided by a portion of food is thought to be the most informative to consumers when making food choices.


It’s true that this system may help consumers to compare similar products and chose those that are lower in sugar and fat for example but it somewhat misses the point that we should be educating children in schools about healthy choices, based upon real food ingredients.  Eating unprocessed, real foods and minimising the intake of pre-prepared, highly processed foods avoids the need for this somewhat confusing focus on nutrients.


There are several issues with this labelling system:

  1. It focuses on nutrients when there is no consensus on which nutrients actually affect health – saturated fat and total fat may not affect heart health whereas refined sugar may contribute to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  2. People who are likely to be most influenced by these new labels are most likely informed enough to make the right food choices without them, while those who ignore them are probably most at risk from an unhealthy diet.
  3. Manufacturers of products with several red traffic lights recommend unrealistically small portion sizes to achieve a more favourable nutritional profile – how many people each half a can of soup or one sixth of a pizza?
  4. Foods that contribute essential nutrients that happen to be high in fat, such as salmon, nuts and cheese are unfairly demonised by this labelling.


What’s the solution?  Get food education back into schools and teach children about real food ingredients, quick scratch cooking recipes and budgeting.  This is the only way to reduce the reliance of many families on cheap processed food with little nutritional value.  If we as a nation voted with our feet and started scratch cooking, manufacturers would have to follow by cleaning up their products and no voluntary labelling system can ever compete with that.

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