Down with the Diet Police!

Tesco’s introduction of traffic-light food warnings shows how normal the nudging of the masses has become.

At some point in the past, either as a gift or an impulse purchase, I obtained a little novelty gadget that sticks to the door of my fridge. When the door is opened, a fun character on the front - an officer of The Diet Police - shouts (quite loudly, actually): ‘STOP, STEP AWAY FROM THE REFRIGERATOR!’ After a few weeks, the novelty wore off. Now that magnetic gadget is stuck on the side of the fridge, helpfully holding a selection of takeaway menus rather than dishing out dietary warnings.

While I could get away from The Diet Police on my fridge, there’s no getting away from the diet police in real life. The latest raid on our personal habits has come with the news that Britain’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, is going to introduce a ‘traffic light’ system of labelling food. Back in 2007, the supermarket giant led a group of retailers campaigning against ‘traffic lights’ in favour of front-of-pack labels that compared the product’s calories, fat, salt and other content against guideline daily allowances (GDAs). But now, Phil Clarke, Tesco’s chief executive, says: ‘We are committed to doing what is right for our customers and therefore have decided to bring together the distinct benefits of GDAs and traffic lights.’

The UK food regulator, the Food Standards Agency, criticised Tesco’s earlier stance, arguing that ‘without a traffic-light colour code, our research showed that shoppers can’t always interpret the information quickly and often find percentages difficult to understand and use. If traffic-light colours were added to products with GDA labels, this would reduce the confusion in the marketplace.’ But retailers like Tesco were rightly worried that simplistic colour codes would serve to demonise perfectly healthy food. It’s not just the stereotypical ‘junk’ foods like chocolate, sugary drinks and savoury snacks that get the red-light treatment; many foods that would normally be regarded positively by foodies and health crusaders will be red-lighted, too. Olive oil and butter would get red lights for fat. Honey and preserves are packed full of sugars. Anchovies would fail on salt. Cheddar cheese and parmesan would fail for fat and salt.

However, Tesco and others have now caved in. Despite making many perfectly rational criticisms of ‘traffic lights’, Tesco will combine its current system with the red, amber and green colour-coding much beloved of food and consumer campaigners.

There’s nothing wrong with providing information on food products about what is contained within. For all sorts of reasons, from allergies to dieting, consumers want to be able to buy products that suit their needs. But these labels are not merely designed to inform; they are designed to ‘nudge’ us - nay, scare us - away from eating certain kinds of food.

Perhaps the only thing worse than the division of the world into the false dichotomy of ‘junk’ food and ‘real’ food is to slap some kind of warning label on nearly all the things we eat. In the name of saving us from largely overstated health risks, the traffic-light system only serves to poison our relationship with all food. The only ray of sunshine in all this is that the traffic-light system is so ridiculously over the top that most people will probably ignore it, just as smokers now largely ignore even the most grotesque health warnings on the sides of cigarette packs. A system where your weekly shopping basket has more red lights than an Amsterdam side street will just become another form of packet decoration.

But the underlying principle should still be challenged. Such warning labels are really a subtle form of prohibition, which sits alongside all the other bites taken out of our liberties that stop short of an outright ban. If we want to buy the ‘wrong’ food, we must negotiate the warning labels. When they prove ineffective, we’ll get ‘fat taxes’ (as implemented already, with little success, in Denmark) or soda taxes, as frequently demanded in the US. Advertising such illicit treats becomes restricted or banned, as has been the case during children’s TV programming since 2007 in the UK, something about to be copied in Ireland. How much we can buy may be regulated, as with the restrictions on the size of fizzy drinks that can be sold in New York restaurants.

They - the experts and the crusaders - know what is good for us, and if we don’t happen to share their fads and fashions, then we will jolly well be nudged, taxed, cajoled or forced into doing the right thing. We need to be protected from our own desires and, even more so, from the dangerous seductions of such evil, health-damning people as, you know, cheese producers. (That’s no joke. In Ireland, the TV advertising ban proposals have been amended so that ‘cheese adverts will be allowed during children’s TV programmes but must include an on-screen message indicating the recommended maximum daily consumption limit’. Never mind units of alcohol - it’s now units of cheese we must watch, too.)

Let’s hope that the traffic-light system is a spectacular failure, and that shoppers learn to do the really healthy thing and ignore it. But even if the new system fails, the whole process will inure us to the idea that the powers-that-be, advised and goaded on by modern-day prohibitionists, should influence or even control our most banal and everyday choices. When even a giant corporation like Tesco feels the need to play ball with the tyranny of healthy living, we should be worried.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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