Blog: Dean BestTraffic lights or GDAs? Industry at a crossroads

Dean Best | 16 May 2007

To a conference west of London today (16 May) to hear more about the on-going debate on nutritional labelling.

The arguments surrounding front-of-pack labelling has been a recurring theme on our news pages in recent months and some of the leading lights of the UK food industry gathered to hear more about the issue.

Traffic lights or guideline daily amounts (GDAs)? The question has committed proponents on both sides as the industry works to encourage consumers to follow a well-balanced, healthy diet.

The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a staunch supporter of traffic lights, giving foods a red, amber or green light depending on their nutrient and fat content. Some of the major food companies, however, believe GDAs give consumers a better chance of getting that well-balanced diet and have developed their own system.

For its part, the FSA has welcomed any moves from the big food companies to improve labelling but would prefer a more unified system.

The FSA’s Gill Fine told the conference, held by industry analysts Leatherhead Food International, that the industry as a whole can, and should, work together on the issue.

“This is not a battleground (between GDAs and traffic lights)… It’s about how we move forward together,” Fine said. A number of hybrid systems are appearing, Fine said, although she insists that traffic lights make it easier for consumers to see, at a glance, what they should be eating.

Nevertheless, Kellogg’s was on hand to sing the praises of GDAs, cautioning that traffic lights can mislead consumers and over-simplify the issue. The company’s communications director Chris Werman was dubious about combining the two approaches. “There’s no simple answer”, he said.

But what is the answer? Shoppers are busy and there is still a level of disinterest towards nutrition labelling. GDAs can be confusing but it’s also true that a simple traffic light system can give the impression that low-fat, healthier products have similar nutritional content to standard products in the same category.

Traffic lights are also a pretty emotive tool. Lots of reds and ambers could put consumers off products that they can consume in moderation – and there is a danger that retailers could restrict choice as shoppers too quickly switch away from apparently “unhealthy” standard products to their “healthier” counterparts.

Consumers need guidance to follow a balanced diet but they may not know which way to turn.


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