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Food nutrition interview with Dr Matt Cole

The traffic light nutrition label gives consumers independent expert scientific dietary advice to help them make healthier food choices quickly and easily. But does the traffic light label system work?

“The project aims to understand the public’s awareness of existing front-of-packaging traffic light nutritional information and to what extent it’s currently used to influence food choices. A secondary purpose is to establish whether alternative means of displaying nutritional data (e.g. At the bottom of a shopping receipt) may be a more beneficial tool instead, said Dr Matt Cole.”

Products using the traffic light nutrition system appear with green, amber or red coloured labels on the front of the pack. These show consumers at a glance if food has low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Red = Bad, Green = Good. However there are problems with this approach – people may avoid Red labeled foods in favour of Green labeled foods, but this is not always the healthiest choice. e.g. Diet Coke is all green v.s. fruit juice which may be Amber for sugar content. Clearly the health benefits of fruit juice would likely supersede any concerns about additional sugar content. Similarly, meat, cheese and dairy products often have Red or Amber ratings for fat or calories despite significant health benefits to their consumption.

“Additionally information about one food item in isolation does not accurately represent a person’s dietary intake over a period of time – more often than not people consume ‘Meals’ and ‘Diets’ rather than individual foods in isolation and so it’s a little illogical to provide nutritional information on a food-by-food basis. Someone may unnecessarily avoid eating any ‘Red’ foods because they believe it to be detrimental to their health when in fact their overall dietary intake could be very healthy and one or two ‘red’ foods will likely have minimal impact on this.”

For those consumers who are unnecessarily avoiding ‘Red’ foods or for those would like to have an overview of their dietary intake, perhaps a receipt-based nutritional summary of their trolley would be more useful. The idea was conceived by Creative Designer Hayden Peek who is now collaborating with Dr Cole on this research project.

They have produced a survey to find out more about what consumers think of traffic light nutrition labelling and the innovative receipt-based summary idea. The relatively simple included only 5 or 6 key questions to understand how much people are aware of/use existing traffic light info and whether they would be receptive to the idea of a ‘receipt-based’ model instead. The other questions are focuses towards demographic data e.g. Location, socio-economic status, age etc. which will allow the results to be split and analysed as there may be differences of opinions across different groups. For example, previous research in this area suggests that low-income families typically make their food choices based upon ‘price’ whereas higher income groups will give ‘healthiness’ or ‘brands’ a greater priority.”.

The team hope to publish the results of the survey and present the data at a conference in the near future. Dr Cole said: “We have several ideas of how the concept might develop into the future and yes, one of these might be to approach retailers. However, much will depend upon the outcomes of the existing project.”