One only has to walk down the cereal isle of the supermarket to see the senselessness of the food labelling system that has been introduced by the food industry.

Percentage Daily Intake (%DI) labelling, which since its introduction in 2006, has been incorporated on the front of food packages produced by some of Australia’s largest food manufacturers including George Weston Foods, Mars, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Nestle and PepsiCo, offers little more than a confusing array of numbers and percentages, and makes the job of choosing healthy foods an ever more bewildering task for consumers.

However, a group of researchers from leading public health and consumer organisations, including Cancer Council, Choice, Obesity Policy Coalition, Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise, University of Sydney and the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia, have attempted to prove the futility of this %DI labelling system, and more importantly to highlight to the powers that be that there is indeed a better labelling system that will help, rather than hinder, consumers in making healthy food choices.

This research put nearly 800 consumers to the test to see how well they could use a range of different front-of-pack food labelling systems.

Overall, the Traffic Light labelling system, which uses coloured dots to indicate if a food product has a high (red), moderate (amber) or low (green) level of the nutrients fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, was the most effective labelling system, allowing more than 80% of consumers to correctly pick the healthy food products from a set of products in two successive tests.

Further, those consumers who compared products using the Traffic Light labelling system were five times more likely to correctly identify the healthier food products, compared to those using the industry preferred %DI system.

As well, consumers from lower socio-economic groups were even less likely to be able to interpret %DI labelling, with consumers from the lowest socio-economic group six times less likely to correctly choose the healthier products using %DI labelling than people from the highest socio-economic group. By comparison, consumers could use the Traffic Light system irrespective of their education and income levels.

In October, the Food Ministerial Council will discuss the possibility of introducing a uniform front-of-pack food labelling system into Australia. This new research provides timely and resolute evidence that Traffic Light labelling is the most effective system to help consumers make healthier food choices.

Peter Fray

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