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National Heart Forum finds food industry labelling schemes flawed

15 February 2007

Front-of-pack nutritional signposting schemes being promoted by the food industry in competition with the Food Standards Agency 'traffic light' labels are fundamentally flawed according to a new report from the National Heart Forum (NHF) released today (Thursday 15 February).

The heart charity looked at front-of-pack labels which display percentages of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) currently appearing on products from a number of manufacturers and on many Tesco own-brand goods. The NHF has found these labels can mislead and confuse consumers trying to choose healthier foods when they are shopping. Problems highlighted in the report show how the GDA values are not appropriate for signposting and that companies are mixing GDAs with other claims and promotional labels on the front of food packaging.

Jane Landon, deputy chief executive of the National Heart Forum said:

"This report shows that some manufacturers and retailers are failing their customers by using nutritional food labels which are overly complex and misleading. Some even appear to be manipulating the front-of-pack label to promote their products rather than to inform their customers.

"Guideline Daily Amounts represent population goals for particular nutrients. Presenting these as percentages on the front of food packaging suggests to the consumer that these are daily targets. Without reading the small print on the back of the packet it is not clear that for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt these figures represent limits rather than targets. With as little as four seconds for each purchase, what consumer's need to be able to see 'at a glance' on the front of the pack is whether a product is high, medium or low in key nutrients."

Some manufacturers and retailers are creating extra GDA signposts such as 'whole grain' for which there is no scientifically agreed value. Others are removing signposts selectively, or adding 'benefit' signposts made to look like GDAs. 

Consumer research shows that the Food Standards Agency's traffic light labels work best to enable real, healthy change in people's shopping habits.

"We believe that the GDA scheme is too complex to be used quickly and easily by consumers across all social and ethnic groups," said Landon. "Nutrition labels should not widen dietary inequalities by being useful only to nutritionally and numerically literate consumers. The proper place for regulated GDA information is on the back-of-pack.

"Repeated surveys show that consumers would like to see one, universal labelling scheme - such as the traffic lights scheme - whatever the brand, wherever they shop. Companies using GDA signpost labels should reconsider their approach and we hope this report will give pause for thought to those retailers and manufacturers who are currently undecided about front-of-pack nutrition labelling."

Press Contacts

For comment or to arrange interviews, please call Jane Landon or Tim Marsh on 020 7383 7638 during office hours or Jane Landon on 07929 785196.

Notes to editors

  1. Misconceptions and misinformation: the problems with Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) is available as a pdf download (1.15MB). The report is written by Dr Tim Lobstein, Jane Landon and Paul Lincoln and is published by the National Heart Forum.  It can be downloaded here.
  2. Information about the Food Standards Agency's traffic light labelling is available at http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/
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