Everyone from government to grocers seems to have their own idea of how best to inform consumers about foods’ nutritional content, but a labeling free-for-all has resulted in a clamor of nutrition labels which are actually getting in the way of comprehension.
On any supermarket aisle, there’s a wall of colorful packaging, each one doing its best to attract attention. Health logos and claims jostle with nutrition tables and color codes.
Grocery shopping should not be this confusing.
Here’s an idea: Before anyone thinks up yet another ill-advised nutrition labeling scheme, let’s get together and figure out what actually works.
The point of nutrition labeling is to help consumers make sensible food choices, thereby relieving the social cost of obesity and diet-related illness. This is an important public health issue, so it seems a shame that there is not more cooperation in tackling it.
Last week American grocery retailer Supervalu – the third-largest in the US – announced that it was starting its own scheme across its range of grocery stores. A spokesperson for Supervalu told this website that the nutrition iQ program is part of “a business strategy to drive consumer loyalty.”
Since this ‘business strategy’ does not seem to have anything in common with other nutrition programs used in the States, the company has said that it will embark on an ambitious education and marketing drive. Its intention is that eventually, color coding on grocery store shelves, rather than on packaging, will draw attention to the top nutritional benefits of about ten percent of all its stock.
But the seven colors themselves seem to be almost randomly selected: For example, dark green stands for low sodium, purple for low calorie and red for low saturated fat.
Hang on a minute: Red, the universal color for danger, means low saturated fat. This is going to have to be a very thorough reeducation.
It seems like a particularly confusing move to start educating the public from scratch about a scheme parallel to others already in place.
If nutritional labeling really is about consumer education, perhaps it would make more sense if experiences and resources were pooled. What is needed is simplification and uniformity, not added layers of confusion.
In Europe, steps are being taken in the right direction. Pooled resources have created an EU-funded research project called Food Labelling to Advance Better Education for Life (FLABEL). It has been set up to assess the effectiveness of the different schemes in use and aims to provide a scientific basis for the use of nutrition labels by determining how labeling affects dietary choices.
However, debate is ongoing about proposed legislation to establish a single nutrition labeling program across Europe, possibly to co-exist with the various national schemes already in place.
In theory, a single scheme seems to make sense for manufacturers wishing to make the most of the single European market, but any attempts to homogenize labeling face a host of challenges, including differences in language and tastes.
But when it comes to interpreting labels, levels of comprehension vary. Unsurprisingly, the FLABEL project has found that this is linked to where specific governments have chosen to focus consumer education – whether that is GDA or colored keyholes, for example – as well as differing cultural attitudes to food.
At the very least, labeling programs need to be consistent within each country.
In the UK, for example, another color-coded scheme – the traffic light labeling scheme – has come under repeated attack for confusing customers. While a red label for salt, for instance, means that a food has a relatively high level per 100g, a survey commissioned by the Food and Drink Federation found that 69 percent of consumers incorrectly thought that the product was high in salt per serving.
Perhaps this is because the other most widely-used scheme in place in the UK is the European one which gives guideline daily amounts (GDA) per serving. Again, consistency has proved to be crucial.
Now is the time for a little hush. Let’s take stock of what is already on the supermarket shelves, and whether it works.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas 'at' decisionnews.com.