The UK government should make the current voluntary traffic-light labelling system mandatory across all food and drink products, including the out of home sector, as part of its response to the national food strategy, campaigners have urged.
The call follows the publication of a systematic evidence review on the impact of colour-coded and warning labels on changing consumers’ purchasing behaviour led by researchers from Action on Salt and Sugar.
The review of 134 studies found that the UK’s traffic-light labelling system, along with Nutri-Score, Chile-style nutrient warning labels, and health warnings, were all able to direct consumers towards more healthy purchases, reducing the energy, salt, fat or saturated fat content of processed foods and drinks chosen or purchased.
Although the researchers found that all ‘interpretive’ nutrition labels support healthier consumer choices, colour-coded labels were found to perform better in highlighting positive aspects of products and encouraging consumers to purchase healthier products. In contrast, warning labels put the negative aspects of products front and centre which discourages the purchase of less healthy products.
The UK’s traffic-light labelling system has been in place in its current format since 2013. It assigns colours – either high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) – to products depending on levels of fat, sugar and salt.
Although many UK food companies have adopted the labels, the scheme is not mandatory and one in four products does not display them. Colour-coded labelling is also absent in the out of home sector, including restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets.
In 2020, the UK government consulted on the current traffic-light labelling system and a potential move to Nutri-Score, which is widely used across Western Europe, or Chile-style nutrient warning labels, but it did not indicate its intention to make labels mandatory.
Mhairi Brown, co-author of the research paper and policy manager for Action on Salt and Sugar, said the review provided clear evidence that labelling works. “We are now urging the government to make labelling mandatory across all products as this would force manufacturers to show consumers, at a glance, if the product is healthier or less healthy – and hopefully encourage them to reformulate to reduce levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat.”