The results of independent research commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) into front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling has suggested a hybrid system, combining ‘traffic light’ colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount (GDA), will provide the most useful guidance for consumers.

At present, there is a strong divergence of view within the UK food sector on this issue, with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents producers, and the biggest food retailer, Tesco, backing a GDA system, while other retailers favour traffic lights or a combination approach. The 18-month long study, conducted by the Project Management Panel, an independent group of experts, had therefore been eagerly awaited.

The main conclusions of the research were that having a single FOP scheme would be most helpful for shoppers; that the balance of evidence demonstrated that the strongest FOP label is one which combines use of the words ‘high, medium, and low’, traffic light colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount (GDA); that shoppers who use FOP labels value them; and that there is a generally high level of understanding of FOP labels.

The policy implications of the research, published today (6 May), will only begin to be seen in the coming months. But the FSA said it would now “take forward the findings, which show that shoppers would benefit from a single FOP scheme that includes the words ‘high, medium and low’, traffic light colours and percentage of Guideline Daily Amount (GDA)”.

The FDF said it was “digesting” the findings. While FDF director of communications Julian Hunt said the organisation was pleased the research appears to show that consumers understand FOP labelling, he also said: “This is only one research study that will need to be considered carefully by policy makers both here and in Brussels.”

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The British Retail Consortium echoed this view, saying that the new research would have to be analysed with the mass of evidence retailers already have before any decisions are made.

Hunt also said: “Labelling is only part of the answer to tackling society’s concerns about issues such as obesity: our members also continue their work on recipe changes, the developments of ‘better for you’ products and workplace wellbeing schemes designed to help people lead healthier lives.”

However, campaigners who have been backing a traffic lights-based scheme believe the research has vindicated their position. Christine Haigh, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, said: “This independent research confirms that the public want food labelling with traffic light colours.”

Haigh also said that the research findings had not been a surprise as “all the previous independent research has shown the same thing”. The Children’s Food Campaign, which is coordinated by agricultural pressure group Sustain, said the industry would now be coming under “enormous pressure” to adopt a hybrid system.