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Muesli nutrition study renews traffic light labelling debate

By Sarah Hills, 18-Aug-2011

Related topics: Carbohydrates and fibres (sugar, starches), Cereals and bakery preparations, Legislation, Nutrition labelling

The traffic light labelling system may have lost steam in Europe but in Australia, the debate has again been reignited with a new study on the nutritional content of muesli.

The Australian consumer watchdog, Choice, reviewed 159 mueslis and found that “not all muesli lives up to its healthy reputation”, renewing its call for mandatory traffic light labelling.

It said that people should not be swayed by nutrition claims alone, as “despite its healthful image, muesli can be laden with fat and sugar”.

The watchdog looked at on-pack nutrition claims and found almost three quarters contained at least one. The most common was gluten and wheat free claims or related to fibre and/or wholegrain content. Low in salt, no added sugar, high protein, low GI and low fat claims were also popular.

However, Choice said: “The problem with nutrition claims is that they don’t tell the whole story — products claiming no added sugar can still be high in sugar, for example, and on the flip side, products that are low fat or contain more than average fibre may be claim free.

“Choice has called for mandatory front of pack traffic light labelling on all products making nutrient or nutrition claims as well as high level health claims to ensure that consumers who want to make healthy decisions are able to do so.”

The labelling system uses traffic light colours to give at-a-glance information to consumers on the amount of fat/saturated fat/sugar/salt contained in a food. A red light means that the product contains a high amount, an amber light meaning medium and a green light meaning low.

EU green light

However, while it seems to be gaining ground in Australia, it has not been made mandatory in Europe, despite high-profile advocates of the system such as the UK’s Food Standards Agency.

Last month the European Parliament voted in favour of new labelling regulations. They require that energy content and amounts of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt must all be stated in a legible tabular form - together and in the same field of vision – and expressed per 100g or per 100ml, but can additionally be expressed per portion.

The UK Food and Drink Federation said this would allow the continuation of percentage of guideline daily amounts (GDAs) per portion indications on a voluntary basis on both front and back of pack.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council has also rejected traffic light labelling as “too simplistic” and favours the Daily Intake Guide system (the equivalent of GDA).

But an independent expert panel has conducted a review of food labelling law and policy at the request of the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council.

Among the report recommendations, published in January, was that a multiple traffic lights front-of-pack labelling system be introduced.

This would be voluntary in the first instance but mandatory for any product making marketing claims about supposed health benefits.