A red light against enjoying food

Do the Food Standards Agency’s ‘traffic-light’ labels take the pleasure out of eating? We ask some grocery shoppers.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘You’re standing in a supermarket aisle looking at two similar products, trying to decide which to choose. You want to make the healthier choice but, as usual, you’re in a hurry. Well, help is at hand…’ (1)

So says the website of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the UK government’s food watchdog, which in its latest burst of creative thinking has launched a ‘traffic light’ labelling system for supermarket food products. The number of grams of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar in one serving of any given product are highlighted in different colours: red for high amounts, amber for medium and green for low. The aim is to make it easier for people to make ‘healthier choices’.

As things stand, living the healthy life as defined by the FSA would involve a whole lot of checking, adding and subtracting of calories, salts and saturates, transforming such a simple activity as grocery shopping into a complicated mathematical exercise and lesson in nutrition. But the point of FSA’s scheme is for as many as possible to simply internalise their version of what is good for us without much consideration, by being able to compare products ‘at a glance’.

Amongst the shoppers and staff in two large supermarkets in south London, it seemed that most had either not noticed the new labelling system, or didn’t think it was problematic. One middle-aged woman said she doesn’t pay any attention to the labels, but she still thinks it’s a good idea. A couple with a young daughter told me that, while they buy whatever they want and like, it’s important that the information is there. Just in case.

The FSA system is being promoted with the help of a £2million advertising budget. Asda, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are among those who have backed it, though other food and drink firms have refused to. This month, another, £4million, campaign was launched by a coalition of 21 major manufacturers and three retailers to promote a labelling scheme that was rejected by the FSA. The coalition is worried that the FSA system will have a detrimental impact on the sales of those products labelled red.

For those of us who prefer fewer warnings on our food, not more, these manufacturers offer little relief. Their system shows the percentage of ‘guideline daily amounts’ (GDAs) of fat, sugar and salt in food products. As Tesco supermarket says: ‘Labels. We are committed to putting them on all our products. So you’ll know the salt in your soup. And unfortunately…the calories in your clotted cream.’ (2)

Is it really the role of the FSA or supermarkets to tell us what to eat? Whatever happened to choice, even if that means making the supposedly ‘wrong’ choice to eat something fatty or sugary? The meticulous food labelling promoted by FSA impinges on our choices. It is about more than just helping us to regulate our diets; there is also a strong streak of hammering home a new moral imperative where we must take the proverb ‘you are what you eat’ literally. Hence the hectoring traffic light system: they are telling us to stop and go, to opt for one kind of food over another.

A health-conscious young woman shopping in Asda was very much for the idea of clear labelling, because ‘it is important for people to regulate what they eat’. But she claimed it is the role of the National Health Service, not supermarkets, to care for people’s health. ‘Supermarkets should stock unhealthy foods, too. Otherwise we wouldn’t have freedom of choice’, she said.

The lack of criticism of the FSA system suggests we have already internalised much of today’s ‘advice’ on food and health. At times, it seems like authorities such as FSA want us to think of treating ourselves to a serving of ice cream or a ready-made pizza as a dirty habit at the top of the slippery slope to fat and sugar addiction. Even buying a ‘typical stick of celery’ at Tesco seems problematic. The GDA figures are two per cent sugar, one per cent fat, three per cent salt and around one per cent saturates trace. Celery poses no health risk, but when all products – even plain vegetables – are classified in this manner, it isn’t so surprising that everything comes to be seen as a potential danger to our bodies.

Most people have an awareness of what a balanced diet should be like, and it is up to each individual whether they deviate from it. The GDA and the traffic light systems have the harmful effect of labelling food as a necessary evil, as a means of survival rather than a source of enjoyment.

(1) Food Standards Agency

(2) Tesco

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