Row over UK front-of-pack labelling intensifies

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The row over whether front-of-pack labeling in the UK should conform to unified standards intensified today when campaign group Action on Sugar accused cereal manufacturers of “deliberately deceiving” shoppers with “poor nutritional labelling.

The voluntary colour-coded front of pack (FoP) traffic light labelling scheme was established in 2013 by the UK’s Department of Health (DH). It has received the backing of various UK health charities, including Action on Sugar, and has been supported by all the major supermarkets and some manufacturers.

However, Action on Sugar stressed this morning, branded food manufacturers frequently choose to use the traffic light labels electively on some, but not all, products.

All companies are being urged to adopt a consistent use of colour-coded FoP labeling, across all of their food and drink products, and to also include the figure for free sugars, Action on Sugar said.

Cereal in spotlight

In a survey of 25 cereal manufacturers, Action on Sugar said six cereal brands, perceived as “healthy”, failed to implement the traffic light labelling scheme. These included Eat Natural, Lizi's, Nature's Path, Paleo Foods Co., Rude Health and Dorset Cereals. Some of these products contain high levels of sugar, which would equate to a ‘red’ warning label, Action on Sugar suggested.

Elsewhere, Action on Sugar said while manufacturers including Associated British Foods’ owned-Jordans, Kellogg’s and Nestle do use FoP labelling, they do not use DH’s recommended colour-coding system. This makes it difficult for consumers to interpret the information and make informed decisions, Action on Sugar argued.

The lobby group noted that a number of cereal makers and retailers do already adhere to the DH guidelines. Alpen, Raisio-owned Honey Monster, Mornflake, PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats, Scott's and Weetabix – alongside all of the top nine UK supermarket operators – have all adopted the government-backed FoP traffic light labelling system.
 
“Considering that front of pack traffic light colour-coded labelling has been recommended for years and adopted by many companies, it is frustrating that big and perceived healthier brands continue to refuse to use this form of helpful labelling,” Action on Sugar researcher and registered nutritionist Kawther Hashem commented.

“Consistent labels allow shoppers, at a glance, to see the huge variation in salt and sugar levels in breakfast cereals. Many of these cereals, often aimed at children, would receive a red traffic light label for being high in sugars. Companies need to reduce the sugar and salt levels now by working towards the sugar targets by 2020 and salt targets by the end of 2017 - and proudly display this on their front of pack nutrition labels.”

Consumers could ‘save 45 teaspoons’ of sugar a month

If consumers had access to consistent FoP labels and switched to lower sugar cereal options, they could cut their sugar intake by 45 teaspoons per month, FoodSwitch UK – an app that provides colour-coded health labels - claimed. For example, switching from a bowl of Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Honey and Nut Clusters (12g sugar per 45g serving) to a lower sugar option, such as Tesco Flakes and Clusters Cereal (6g sugar per 40g serving) every day, consumers would reduce their sugar intake by 182g per month, FoodSwitch said.

“If companies are serious about helping their customers’ make healthier choices with lower salt, sugar and saturated fat, then, like the supermarkets and the more responsible manufacturers, they must consistently use front-of-pack colour-coded nutrition labelling. Until then, we have created FoodSwitch and SugarSwitch to show shoppers what’s in their food and help them find healthier similar alternatives with less sugar, so that these companies can’t hide behind poor labelling,” Sarah Alderton, a nutritionist for FoodSwitch UK, suggested.

Food makers ‘doing enough’ – FDF

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), an industry body representing food manufacturers in the UK, was quick to rebut this critique and downplayed calls for increased regulation of front-of-pack labelling requirements.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, a spokesperson for the food sector federation stressed that the food and beverage industry in the UK is already subject to “tightly regulated” food labelling requirements, which are imposed at an EU level. “Companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food, and ingredients lists and nutrition information are both provided on pack.”

The spokesperson stressed that, in addition to these requirements, the “vast majority” of companies “go beyond this legal obligation to voluntarily provide clear, simple nutrition information front of pack”.

The spokesperson concluded: “This helps consumers make informed purchasing decisions by enabling individuals to quickly check, compare and choose between similar products, which includes the amount of sugar they contain.”

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