The use of a simple warning system modelled on traffic lights would help consumers make better dietary choices and reduce the risks of diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, a new study reports.
Consumers instinctively associate red lights with danger and green lights with safety, and this study applies that principle to food labelling. Red lights would prompt consumers to look more closely at the packaging for nutritional information, while green lights would indicate healthier choices.
The study was published in late December in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. It used data from a 2004 nutritional study of 20,000 Canadian adults in which all the food consumed by participants was given a colour ranking in total fat, sodium, saturated fat and total sugars. Researchers used a variety of strategies in that study to move consumers from “red” choices to healthier ones, but the amount of food consumed was unchanged.
The study found that “through an optimistic scenario of avoiding, if possible, foods with red traffic lights, could effectively reduce Canadians’ intake of energy, total fat, saturated fat and sodium by 5%, 13%, 14% and 6% respectively.” It concluded that a nutrient-specific labelling system, if adopted, could help Canadians avoid red-traffic-light food and provide “an effective population-wide intervention to improve (non-communicable disease) risk.”
Consumers Council of Canada published a group panel report on Food Information, Labelling and Advertising, that included the collaboration of six major Canadian consumer focused organizations, including three specifically focused on food safety. That report included a recommendation that front-of-package labelling and a related consumer education program work to “reduce consumer confusion resulting from multiple FOP programs.” It recommended that the scheme use intuitive colour coding and/or symbols to provide guidance rather than specific facts.