Dr Alan Barclay
What's missing from traffic light labelling?
Like many countries, Australia is in the midst of an overweight/obesity epidemic and this in turn is creating an epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases, most notably type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke). Australian Government policy guidelines around food labelling have “agreed to tackle the burden of chronic disease”.
Although there is general agreement these days that excessive total energy intake relative to energy expenditure is the primary dietary factor contributing to overweight/obesity, the debate still rages in the scientific community about the specific contribution of macronutrients like fat, carbohydrate and alcohol.
Some well-intentioned Australian public health and consumer organisations are keen to see traffic light labelling on all Australian packaged foods, despite most other nations moving away from this particular front-of-pack labelling scheme. Choice, for example, recently used their model for traffic light labels to judge a range of mueslis for their fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium content.
Here at GI News we are as keen as anyone else to give consumers a simple way to make better choices in the supermarket that will help them achieve and maintain a healthier weight. However, we don't believe that the current traffic light labelling systems are the better buying magic bullet. Here's why.
The first and most obvious flaw with traffic light schemes is that they generally don't include kilojoules/calories (that's the total energy in 100 grams of food). Given that the general aim of traffic light labelling is to help in the fight against obesity, this omission seems almost inexplicable. When pushed on this, most traffic light advocates will say that most consumers don't understand kilojoule/calories. However, if there is this gap in consumer understanding, then surely what we should be doing is helping people understand kilojoules/calories and how to use them, rather than omit them from front-of-pack labelling schemes. A side effect of leaving them off, also suggests they don't matter as much as fat, sugar and salt ...
Secondly, while most traffic light labelling schemes include total fat and sodium, they only generally include half of the carbohydrates in the serving – that old bogey sugars. However, people with diabetes and those at risk need to know how much total carbohydrate a food contains – the starch as well as the the sugar. And of course if we were really serious about front-of-pack labelling helping in the prevention and management of diabetes (and obesity), we would also incorporate GI, as there is very strong (as in level 1) evidence that a low GI diet will help with both.
Thirdly, traffic light labelling schemes tend to focus on total sugars – not added sugars (the Choice critique of the mueslis for example, gives healthy products containing dried fruit a red 'sugar' traffic light. Some healthy foods like dried fruit (which our dietary guidelines say can contribute to your 2 serves a fruit a day) naturally contain sugars. What you have to watch with these foods is the portion size because they are energy dense, and this is where those kilojoules/calories have a key role to play.
Illustration courtesy Australian Food and Grocery Council – August 2011
Any front of pack labelling scheme needs to focus on both the positive and negative attributes of food if it’s going to truly help consumers make a balanced assessment of a product. If a front-of-pack labelling scheme is not entirely evidence based but instead focuses on the bogey nutrients of the day we can be sure that they will encourage food industry to reformulate their foods and drinks to avoid the dreaded red spot, but this may have the unfortunate side effect of increasing rates of overweight/obesity and type 2 diabetes if the Australian sugar paradox is anything to go by.
For more information about the GI Symbol Program
Dr Alan W Barclay, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer
Glycemic Index Foundation (Ltd)
Phone: +61 (0)2 9785 1037
Mob: +61 (0)416 111 046
Fax: +61 (0)2 9785 1037