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The traffic light rating of food - a remedy for obesity?

Many people are unaware of how unhealthy their regular groceries can be. Unbeknownst to them, they consume tons of sugar, salt and fat, which are hidden as cheap flavor enhancers in many industrially processed products.

Although all ingredients must be declared on the package label, the list of ingredients and nutritional tables are often very small and confusing. It is also difficult for many consumers to interpret the given values ​​correctly. Due to this, there is a growing need for an easy and understandable labeling system.

The traffic light system, developed by the British Ministry of Health and Food Standards Agency (FSA), is the perfect system. An increasing amount of packaged foods have already been modelling their nutritional tables on this system for several years. For each serving, the label shows the total amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, as well as the percentage of the daily recommended amount for an average adult. In addition, the individual nutrients are color coded. Depending on their content per 100 g or 100 ml, they are marked with the colors green (low), amber (medium) and red (high), like a traffic light. If the usual serving size exceeds 100 g or 150 ml, the color coding is based on the total amount per serving.

Although the system has received widespread approval, it is not yet obligatory and some manufacturers refrain from using the system on their labels.

Inspired by the British system, the Nutri score model has been developed in France and has also been applied on a voluntary basis since 2017. Based on the nutrient content per 100 g / 100 ml, it weighs positive and negative ingredients against each other and rates the product as a whole. To ensure that quality products are not falsely classified as unhealthy, the assessment of dietary fats, oils, cheeses and beverages is based on modified criteria.

By using a label with a five-level color scale from green to red and corresponding letters from A to E, consumers can read at a glance whether the food tends to be more healthy or unhealthy.

After many years of resistance and lobbying to stop the launch of a food traffic light system in the European Union, from Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, five of the largest food companies are arguing for the adoption of a single label in Europe. However, their favored "Evolved Nutrition Label" (ENL) differs from the already established systems. The reference quantity is not a standardized weight or volume, but the portion size in relation to the daily recommended amount for an average person. Thus, products rich in fat, sugar and salt can be evaluated differently, only by varying the recommended portion size.

Using the example of a commercial chocolate cream, the differences between the individual labeling systems becomes evident. The manufacturer's recommended portion size is 15 g and contains approximately 8 g of sugar and 5 g of fat, of which 2 g are saturated fats. At 100 g, this results in approximately 56 g of sugar, 31 g of fat and 11 g of saturated fatty acids. Using the British food traffic lights, these three nutrients would be clearly marked red and the product would be labelled as unhealthy. The Nutri score yields a similar result, rating this product on the second worst scale (Orange; D).

If one applies the criteria of the ENL, however, the results and rating differ greatly. All three nutrients appear yellow because the portion contains only about 7% to 9% of the daily recommended amount of sugar, fat and saturated fats.

The NGO organization "Foodwatch” publicly criticizes the ENL labeling system. To the consumer, even foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar appear to be healthier than they really are due to the referenced portion sizes. In addition, the organization points out that the reference to different portion sizes makes the comparability of products more difficult. According to "Foodwatch", the ENL does not help consumers to inform themselves, but in fact misleads them.

Obesity has multifactorial causes and therefore requires complex action. Better food labeling is an important step in prevention and health education. For this reason, scientists and even consumers have advocated for a consistent, effective and mandatory labeling system. It should be an instrument that allows consumers to easily identify and recognize healthy and unhealthy products. The food traffic light system can only achieve its ambitious goals and be an effective means in the fight against overweight and obesity, if these conditions are met.

Image 1 © “Bumble Dee” / Fotolia.com

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