Why Some U.K. Marketers Are Flashing Caution Over 'Traffic Light' Food Labels

Your Questions Answered About Controversial Program To Combat Obesity

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Kit Kat with new traffic light label
Kit Kat with new traffic light label

In a bid to tackle the obesity crisis -- six out of ten adults in the U.K. are overweight, costing the National Health Service around $6 billion a year -- the U.K. government has introduced a new "traffic light" food-labeling system. But the new labels have sparked controversy among marketers disagreeing on whether the plan will make life easier for consumers seeking a healthier diet. Here, we outline the pros and cons of the system.

What is the traffic-light system?

The U.K. government's new voluntary food labeling program uses red, amber and green color-coding as visual shorthand to show how "healthy" a food is. The labels, displayed on the front of packs, also show the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories in 100 grams of the product. The new system was introduced in mid-June, but it will be a few more weeks before some participants get their new labels into productions.

Why is it controversial?

Some food manufacturers argue that identifying food as healthy or unhealthy is wrong, because only diets can be healthy or unhealthy. They maintain that giving labels to 100 gram quantities of food, when we eat food in hugely different proportions, is confusing and misleading. For example, the traffic lights might be all green for diet cola and red for cheese, which tells you nothing about their nutritional value.

Many food manufacturers prefer to use Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) on their labels, showing how much of the recommended daily intake of calories and nutrients are in a particular product.

Hovis bread with the new label
Hovis bread with the new label

Are all food marketers adopting the traffic light system?

It isn't compulsory. Coca-Cola, Kellogg and Mondelez, among others, have rejected it. Coca-Cola said that "after careful consideration… we will continue with the GDA labeling that consumers widely recognize and understand throughout Europe." Mondelez also prefers GDAs, which its says gives consumers "the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat."

So who is adopting the traffic-light system?

Mars U.K., Nestlé U.K., PepsiCo U.K., McCain Foods and Premier Foods, as well as all the major supermarket chains – Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Waitrose -- are supporters. Around 60% of food sold in the U.K. will be labeled with the new traffic light color-coding.

How will it tackle obesity?

The Department of Health believes that standardizing the way food is labeled will help consumers understand and compare products more easily, so that they can make healthier choices. Public Health Minister Anna Soubry said in a statement, "We know that people get confused by the variety of labels that are used. We all have a responsibility to tackle the challenge of obesity, including the food industry – this is why I want to see more manufacturers signing up and using the label."

Will other countries adopt the traffic-light system?

Traffic lights may be aimed at simplifying labels in the U.K., but they are adding to confusion across the rest of Europe, where they are not in use. The U.K. has taken a unilateral stance on food labeling at a time when the European Union is working towards standardizing food labels across the continent.

The EU has recently agreed on a new set of food- labeling rules that will apply from December 2014. These do not include a traffic light system, and are more concerned with increasing the size, and improving the legibility, of labels.

The European trade body FoodDrinkEurope believes that any national schemes should be agreed at EU level. In a statement, FDE warned that the U.K.'s traffic light color-coding could lead to a proliferation of national schemes and goes against the EU objective of creating one single market.

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