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A question of semantics: From ‘traffic light’ to ‘colour coded’ labelling

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+

Last updated on 28-Apr-2014 at 13:35 GMT2014-04-28T13:35:38Z

A move away from ‘traffic light’ to ‘colour coded’ nutrition labels leaves behind the danger of a “stop and go interpretation” of foods, according to the British Heart Foundation. 

The charity said there had been a marked shift away from the original terminology of the voluntary ‘traffic light’ initiative within government communication, a move Victoria Taylor, senior dietician for the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said the charity backed.

The front-of-pack system - which gives each product a red, amber or green rating based on fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt levels per 100g - was introduced by the UK’s department of health last June. The voluntary scheme is used in combination with front-of-pack guideline daily amounts (GDAs) already on food packaging across Europe, with critics questioning its simplicity and role in harmonised EU labelling.

Beyond semantics

Taylor said this new wording was beyond a simple question of semantics, and said BHF was encouraging this descriptive shift.

Taylor said: “In terms of food labelling, the first scheme for front-of-pack labelling that came from the Food Standards Agency used the term 'traffic lights' for the red, amber green colours used to indicate high, medium and low. However, in the revised scheme from the department of health this has moved away from the use of this terminology.”

“This moves the focus away from a stop or go interpretation and shifts this towards an emphasis on getting the right balance of foods in the diet and making informed choices,” she said.

Critics of the scheme have said it is overly simplistic in its categorisation, and does not take into account the role these single foods play in an overall diet. At the time the Italian industry trade organisations Federalimentare, Clitravi and ISB issued a joint statement saying they "strongly opposed " any food labelling system based on a 'traffic-light' approach for this reason.

Meanwhile others like the industry association FoodDrinkEurope said it would lead to fragmentation in EU food labelling. 

High, medium, low

All major UK retailers signed up to the voluntary scheme last year, as well as food manufacturers like Mars UK, Nestle UK, PepsiCo UK and Premier Foods. The BHF said this means that around 50% of food products on the UK market will carry the label.

The organisation continues to stick by its stance that the system is “key to helping people make informed choices”, providing a clear guide on levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in processed products like ready meals.

In an earlier statement it outlined that red meant “high” in these factors, there marked a product to be “enjoyed once in a while”, amber meant “medium” therefore “OK most of the time" and green meant “low” meaning consumers could “go for it”

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