UK study: Traffic light labelling no better than DIG

The introduction of voluntary traffic light labelling recommended in the Labelling Logic report could be a waste of time, according to a recent UK study, showing the colour-coded system has no significant benefits over the more numerical Daily Intake Guide (DIG), currently used on more than 4000 food and beverage products in Australia.

Lead researcher Klaus Grunert at Aarhus University in Denmark and colleagues at the European Food Information Council investigated consumers’ use and understanding of nutrition information on traffic light labelling and Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA), a labelling system similar to the DIG.

The team of researchers conducted in-store interviews with 2019 consumers in three major UK retailers, and distributed take-home questionnaires to 921 other consumers, analysing their knowledge on nutrition and understanding of front-of-pack labelling.

They found that while the majority of consumers could use both GDA and traffic light labels to make inferences about the healthiness of products, the degree of use of nutrition information depended on the product category. For example, consumers were less interested in nutrition information for indulgence-type products such as confectionary, compared to healthier products such as yoghurt.  

Chief Scientific Officer for the Glycemic Index Foundation and Head of Research at the Australian Diabetes Foundation, Dr Alan Barclay, said he had doubts about some of the recommendations in the Labelling Logic report, including the use of traffic light labelling.

“My initial assessment is that it’s a mixed bag – some, but not all of the recommendations are sound,” he said.

“Recommendations to use a traffic light labelling scheme are clearly at odds with the evidence from the UK where percentage DI/GDA labelling has been shown to be at least equally effective for consumer education when the two systems operate in parallel. Percentage Daily Intake information is now on several thousands of foods in Australia – introducing a parallel scheme that is not demonstratively superior is not in anyone’s interest,"

The results of the UK study are in stark contrast with the Australian study conducted in 2008 by public health and consumer research groups, including Choice and the Cancer Council. The study, which involved 200 consumers, found that traffic light labelling was “significantly more effective in assisting consumers to select healthier food products,” compared to other front-of-pack labelling systems including the DIG.

The Australian food and beverage industries have rejected the recommendation for traffic light labelling in the Labelling Logic report, saying it is “badly understood” by consumers.

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