Don’t give food alerts the green light
In seeking to label food as 'good' or 'bad', the UK authorities risk treating pizza like poison, and consumers like children.
‘Oh dear. “May contain nuts”. He can’t have these either,’ she said, reading the warning on another packet from the sideboard.
‘Well, no, but then that is actually a packet of nuts’.
‘Oh yes, so it is. I suppose they can’t be too careful.’
In May Contain Nuts, John O’Farrell’s rather painful satire about middle-class parenting, one mother’s neurosis is summed up by her attitude to her son’s peanut allergy. He doesn’t have an allergy – or at least, not one that his parents know of, because they have never taken the risk of exposing him to peanuts. Certain foods, like busy roads and bad schools, represent the myriad shadowy threats that lurk around our children, from which they must be protected at all costs. So the kids eat a diet of apparently healthful, harmless, tasteless foods and are never allowed to leave the house on their own.
The bizarre excesses of certain food labelling exercises have been subject to ridicule for some time. A friend of mine recently bought some goats’ cheese that carried the warning ‘Contains goats’ milk’ – a case in point. But if the UK government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) gets its way, the fad for daft food labels has only just begun.
On 16 November, the FSA announced that it has just completed its research into the colour-coding of food according to its levels of fat, saturates, sugar and salt, and has concluded that a ‘Multiple Traffic Light’ system is the way to go (1). If this goes ahead, consumers picking out their pizzas and ready-meals in supermarkets will be confronted with a brightly-coloured label on the front of the packaging advising how their proposed dinner scores on the healthy-eating chart. So a pizza, for example, might have a green light for saturates and sugar (good), and amber light for fat (don’t make a habit of it) and a red light for salt (stop right there! Are you trying to poison your children?). And you thought a trip to the supermarket was wearing enough already.
What is behind this complicated colour-coding system for everyday foods? The FSA says it is about helping consumers make the choices they want to make. ‘Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices but find the current information confusing’, said Deirdre Hutton, chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency. ‘After carrying out rigorous and comprehensive research, we now have the makings of a system that will make it quicker and easier for people to do so.’ Well, fine – but it seems pretty damned complicated to me. And it is far from clear whether the 2,600 people upon whom the FSA conducted its research really think that food traffic lights would make all the difference to their diets.
The FSA consulted about four possible ‘signposting’ schemes, of which the Multiple Traffic Light system was one. Another was a ‘simple’ traffic light system, where green meant healthy, amber meant okay and red meant unhealthy. Further options were a Colour Guideline Daily Amount (CGDA), listing the amount of fat, saturates, sugar and salt per serving against the Guildeline Daily Amount of that ingredient; and a monochrome version of this CGDA.
The option ‘none of the above’ does not seem to have been given. And when it came to which of those four limited choices the guinea pigs actually preferred, the majority opted for the Colour Guideline Daily Amount. But the FSA, in its infinite wisdom, has rejected this choice because one third of respondents from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority groups were apparently unable to use it to identify whether a food had high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Given that it is the eating habits of the poor that most bother the government, it couldn’t just go with what most people wanted, if this meant failing to capture the ignorant oiks in the all-pervasive healthy eating message. And as Deirdre Hutton explained, the FSA is, in fact, less interested in making it easier for people to make their choices than in encouraging them to make the right choices. ‘What we choose to eat is a personal matter, but we want to help people make informed choices for themselves about the content of their food’, she said – making sure people know that it’s red for STOP, and that they jump the lights at their peril. Simplistic? Very. Patronising? Oh yes.
However, the biggest problem with the forward march of the food traffic-light system is the way it seeks to package food in terms of risk, rather than nutrition. We are used to the food industry’s attempts to brand its products as ‘good’ for you – for your heart, your energy levels, your cholesterol intake – and we tend to take these with a pinch of salt (no pun intended). But the traffic-light system seeks to categorise food according to how bad it is for you. Red means danger, and the best that can be said for the green-light products is that they are not as bad for you as the red ones. This is an unhealthy, and rather miserable, approach to the food we eat on an everyday level. In reality, food does not kill us, but keeps us alive. The FSA should remember that, before it starts plastering everything with warning labels and treating fat, salt and sugar like some kind of toxin.
And we should remember that the premise of this entire government-sponsored healthy eating crusade is founded on nothing more than prejudice. For all the authorities’ simplistic prescriptions about eating five fruit and veg a day or banning chips in schools, there is no evidence supporting the contention that the precise foods we eat make a major difference to our health. It is telling that one of the FSA’s proposed colour-coding schemes, the ‘simple traffic lights’ that coded foods as simply healthy, okay or unhealthy, was rejected as ‘too basic’ – whereas in fact, as any nutritionist or person with basic common sense could tell you, it’s just wrong. The fact that a food is low in salt, sugar, and fat does not automatically make it ‘healthy’, and the consumption of foods high in fat, sugar or salt as part of a normal diet will not make you ill. (NB: ‘Normal’ does not mean eating a super-size burger and chips every day.) To encourage people to speculate increasingly about whether this or that particular food is good or bad for you, particularly when it comes to children, is a recipe for increasing our neurotic obsession with food.
The FSA has now launched a 12-week public consultation about exactly which foods should be signposted, and where on the packet this signposting should appear. It would be more useful if such a consultation asked people whether it is useful for a government to promote a widespread fear of food, and to cajole people into filling their shopping trolleys according to the inflexible orthodoxy of ‘healthy eating’.
spiked-issue: Food scares
(1) Food colour coding ‘best option’, BBC News, 16 November 2005; Agency consults on front of pack labelling scheme to help consumers make healthier choices, FSA, 16 November 2005
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.