Choosing Health, the White Paper on public health published two years' ago this month, stated the government's goal of "a clear, straightforward coding system so that busy people can understand at a glance which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet, and which are recommended to be eaten only in moderation or sparingly".
Both the FSA's traffic lights and the GDAs used increasingly by selected members of the food industry do indeed help the consumer to understand which foods are to be eaten in moderation or sparingly. Moreover, they appear to have had the desired effect, both in terms of motivating those involved in food manufacture to improve their product formulations and also in changing the purchasing habits of at least some of the population.
But the government's two sub-goals of a coding system and helping people understand which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet appears to have been overlooked as yet. A product could have green lights for fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium yet offer little in terms of positive nutrition. In the long term, we are failing the consumer if we allow "positive contribution" to mean merely the absence of negatives.
Other output, from the FSA, DH and JHCI among others, recommends we increase our intake of fruit, vegetables, omega-3s and wholegrains, yet there is no consistent method for highlighting these elements of food products. In fact, the plan to develop five-a-day criteria for composite foods appears to have been quietly dropped.
In the past few weeks Hannaford Bros New England (part of the Delhaize Group) has launched a labelling indicator that could yet provide a model for the next stage of labelling in the UK. Its Guiding Stars nutrition navigation system uses gold star shelf tags to provide rating systems for foods. Healthy products are given one star, better choices get two and the best three, while those rated as having no significant nutritional value are merely highlighted by the absence of any stars (and thus not actively demonised).
The rankings are based on US Department of Agriculture guidelines, with points earned for meeting recommended levels of vitamins, minerals, fibre and wholegrains. Points are subtracted for excess levels of saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars. Nutrition information has been obtained for the most part from the nutrition labels of the products themselves, supplemented with data from the USDA National Nutrient Database for items such as fresh produce where labels are not mandatory. The proprietary rating formula is currently patent pending.
One obvious, although often overlooked, problem with highlighting ever more detailed nutrient content is that consumers are going to become increasingly overwhelmed by the volume of information. Positive messages such as Guiding Stars are less likely to alienate consumers, and one simple symbol instead of several criteria to interpret has a great advantage too.
This is not an end point but a journey through which the consumer may come to understand that human bodies function very much like cars, with the quality of fuel input affecting the quality of performance output. Traffic lights and GDAs are but one early step in this journey and I predict it will not be long before a significant number of consumers are looking to food manufacturers to provide more consistent information on the positive aspects of their offerings.