Nutritional policies and guidance labels ‘failing’

By Laurence Gibbons contact

- Last updated on GMT

Traffic light labelling is failing to change consumer behaviour
Traffic light labelling is failing to change consumer behaviour

Related tags: Traffic light labelling, Nutrition

Nutritional policies and front-of-pack guidance on food products are failing to improve public health and curb the UK’s obesity epidemic, according to a leading expert.

Consumers are failing to react to policies, Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) and traffic light labelling systems because they don’t like being told what to do or don’t care about healthy eating. That was the warning issued by Professor Jack Winkler, visiting lecturer at University College, London and MRC Human Nutrition Research, Cambridge.

Winkler told Food Matters Live at the Excel, London yesterday (November 18) that certain people were repelled by being told what to do by ‘experts’.

This mentality made nutritional policies an “unattractive area”​ for politicians to focus on without fear of being authoritarian, he added. 

‘Failure’

“If you look at the public health impact of these policies, they have been a failure,”​ he claimed.

“The evidence is the obesity epidemic, not just in the UK, but everywhere and it’s been followed by a diabetes epidemic that would be a catastrophe financially as well as in health terms.”

He claimed that both front-of-pack labelling systems were flawed because they focussed on changing consumer behaviour, not what food manufacturers could do.

“Both the traffic light system and the GDA system fail on what seems to be the important variable, which is we think that everyone now talks about labelling as influencing consumer behaviour.

“What we really need is for them to change companies’ behaviour, so they get a good label or a bad label.”

“The trouble with the traffic light system is it only has three categories – red, amber and green. What that means is for a company to change from red to amber or amber to green, is often impossible without completely changing the product.”

Instead of focusing on changing consumer behaviour through labels, there should be more work done to reformulate mass-produced products to help tackle health issues in the country, he added.

Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said there needed to be a clear strategy between industry and government to set a single message to consumers about health.

“I think it is government’s job to set that strategy, it’s their job to provide the regulation and rules,” ​she said.

Joined-up approach

“But beyond that, we should all come together and work together. Industry does have a role to play and we recognise that at the FDF.”

National and local government, non-government organisations, health professional and food and drink manufacturers all had a role to play in improving public health, she added

Meanwhile, messages about obesity could create negative effects for people suffering from malnutrition, warned Lee Sheppard, director of policy and external affairs at hospital, care home and local authorities food firm Apetito UK.

“There is lots of focus in the media and press around obesity and this concept around healthy eating,”​ he said.

“We have got to consider those that are under-nourished as well. The messages around obesity are important but potentially contradictive to those suffering from malnutrition.”

Traffic light labelling, for example, sent completely the wrong impression for people suffering from malnutrition, he added.

Related topics: Regulation, Food Labelling, Obesity Debate

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