What does it say on the tin?

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After years of discussion, the government and the food industry have reached an agreement on a consistent traffic-light food labelling system, which is expected to come into force by summer 2013. The front-of-pack labels will categorise foods as red, amber or green in terms of levels of fat, salt and sugar, making it easier for customers to make informed and—hopefully—healthier choices.

The new labels will replace the plethora of different systems adopted by various supermarkets, some of which are already using colour-coding to provide at-a-glance nutritional information. However, there are others, such as Tesco, which have resisted the scheme and chosen instead to use Guideline Daily Amount labelling. All supermarkets have now agreed to embrace the system–bar Iceland–but what has yet to be decided is how strict criteria will be for categorizing food products. This decision rests on a compromise between the Department of Health and major food manufacturers.

In comparison with supermarkets, branded food companies have been more resistant to the new labeling plans, with the Food and Drink Federation (which represents such manufacturers) reportedly insisting its members already provide clear nutritional information. However, it may be speculated the reason for their resistance is this: if the new system does encourage shoppers to purchase more ‘green’ foods, certain brands may have to consider making changes to their products in order to make them less fattening, sugary or salty.

Despite receiving support from the British Heart Foundation and the British Medical Association, a spokesperson for the National Union of Farmers commented that, ‘The colour-coded approach is over-simplistic’ and added it ‘demonises some food groups’. The argument here is consumers might associate ‘green’ directly with ‘healthy’, and may mistakenly make choices such as avoiding full-fat milk in favour of low-calorie carbonated drinks, neglecting the proper makeup of a balanced diet.

Anna Soubry, the public health minister supports the scheme but did confirm that the UK already provides more front-of-the-pack nutritional information than any other European country. And yet, let us not forget that the UK also has the highest rates of obesity in Europe, throwing into question the effectiveness of clear labeling in terms of public health. However, diet plays an undeniably vital role in preventing and treating diseases linked with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The new labeling system should theoretically prevent consumers’ ignorance of the surprising amounts of sugar, fat and salt in various foods, making them at least more conscious of their choices, if nothing else.

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