The Colo(u)r of Food Fear

Discussion in 'Food and nutrition' started by [email protected], Jan 11, 2005.

  1. In an attempt to protect its citizens, the United Kingdom is reviewing
    proposals to implement its own color-coded alert system evocative of
    the one in place in the United States.

    This may prompt cynicism in Americans who are skeptical about the
    effectiveness of our own color-coded security alert system. They may,
    however, be comforted by the knowledge that the UK's system would
    create warnings that are targeted to much more specific areas than our
    system. You see, the UK's proposed alert system has nothing to do
    with international terrorists. Rather it will relate to food,
    providing a color-coded indicator specifically calculated for each item
    in grocery stores. Additionally, it would differ in another
    fundamental way -- by indicating the healthfulness of foods, as opposed
    to levels of security threats.

    The UK's Food Standards Agency is currently reviewing five food
    labeling proposals with the goal of picking a system that will help
    people make better-informed and healthier food choices. The two
    currently favored proposals are a "simple traffic light" system (with
    red, amber, and green circles, which supposedly respectively indicate:
    eat sparingly, eat in moderation, and eat plenty) and a "multiple
    traffic light system" (indicating low, medium, or high for levels of
    fat, salt, sugar, and saturates). Other proposals include an
    "extended traffic light" system containing a range of five colors as
    opposed to three (I am trying to imagine the confusion that would ensue
    if such a system replaced all current traffic lights) and a logo to be
    placed on specific foods deemed to be "healthy."

    The first currently favored proposal, the "simple traffic light" system
    with one color indicator for each particular food, will be too vague to
    help consumers make informed nutritional decisions and create balanced
    diets. To the system's credit, it does account for a variety of
    nutritional factors, including calories, saturated fat, sugar, sodium,
    calcium, iron, and percent fruit and vegetable content. However, the
    system does not account for the presence of other important nutrients
    in the diet (for example, both fruit and diet soda would be labeled
    with the same green light "eat plenty" indicator). The system
    provides only one indicator of a given food's status as "healthful,"
    thereby obscuring which factors account for the product's positive or
    negative rating.

    The other favored proposal, a "multiple traffic light" system,
    indicates high (red), medium (amber), or low (green) for levels of four
    food components: fat, salt, sugar, and saturates. This system has a
    considerable advantage over the "simple traffic light" system in that
    indicators are shown separately and are based directly on levels of a
    substance as opposed to a complex formula assigning uniform values to
    the importance of nutrients (resulting in a system in which some amount
    of a "positive," such as calcium, must be present in order to
    counteract a "negative," such as calorie density, in a calculation of
    healthfulness). However, while it does attract attention to a wider
    range of nutritional aspects of food items, again, it may lead to
    oversimplified food choices based on only four factors. These four
    factors do not even include calories, the most important dietary factor
    in weight control. Furthermore, the same information is already
    available on the current, albeit slightly less visible, label on each

    It may be risky to squeeze complex information -- whether about
    nutrition or terrorism -- into a system normally used to convey only
    go/caution/stop. If the UK does implement a new food labeling system,
    it should be supplemented with education clearly indicating the meaning
    of such labels and not simply reduce food's qualities to traffic light
    colors. The Food Standards Agency is currently welcoming input on the
    labeling system. (See
    NOTE: A version of this post which includes hyperlinks can be found at
    Rivka Weiser