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Health researchers call for mandatory front of pack nutrition labels to support healthier food purchases

Following a review of all the independent academic studies on nutritional labels, researchers from Action on Salt & Sugar say evidence supports making nutritional labelling mandatory on front of food and drink packaging.

UK multiple traffic light label. Copyright: Sustain

UK multiple traffic light label. Copyright: Sustain

Nutritionists and researchers from Sustain's member organisation Action on Sugar/Action on Salt, based at Queen Mary University London, are calling for the UK Government to make front-of-pack nutrition labels mandatory without delay. The call comes after they conducted a wide reaching systematic literature review of 134 studies on the impact of different front-of-pack labelling schemes, all of which showed a positive effect in directing consumers towards healthier purchases.

The studies covered the UK’s multiple Traffic-light Labelling System (TLS), Nutri-Score (NS), Chile-style Nutrient Warning Labels and Health Warning Labels (eg used in California).  All were able to direct consumers towards more healthy purchases, reducing the energy, salt, fat or saturated fat content of processed foods and drinks chosen or purchased.  

Prior to this study, evidence on the impact of each type of colour-coded label and warning labels on modifying consumers purchasing behaviours was mixed. This research demonstrates that all interpretive nutrition labels support consumers, but colour-coded labels such as the UK's traffic light labels and Nutri-Score perform better in highlighting positive aspects of products and encourage consumers to purchase healthier products. In contrast, warning labels such as those in Chile and California put the negative aspects of products front and centre which discourages the purchase of less healthy products.  

The UK’s traffic-light labelling system has been in place in its current format since 2013, displaying levels of total fat, saturated fat, total sugar and salt in products colour-coded as either high (red), medium (amber) or low (green). While many UK food companies now display these labels, it remains a voluntary programme, and one in four products does not display them, and the use of colour-coded labels is also not used in restaurants, cafes or takeaways.

In 2020, the UK Government consulted on front of pack nutrition labels, inviting views on the current Traffic-light Labelling System and a potential move to Nutri-Score or Chile-style Nutrient Warning Labels. However, this study found that much of the existing research on nutrition labels focuses on short term computer simulations. This research suggests future studies should focus on the real-world impact of nutrition labels on individuals’ eating patterns, and on industrial reformulation at the population level, over a longer timeframe.  

Action on Salt and Sugar recommend that the Government make the UK’s current voluntary Traffic-light Labelling System mandatory across all products, including the Out of Home sector, as part of their response to the National Food Strategy.  They recommend that the scheme should be evaluated in real time to assess effectiveness in helping to prevent obesity and diet-related diseases such as stroke, heart attacks and various cancers.  

Mhairi Brown, co-author and Policy Manager for Action on Salt and Sugar said: 

“The Government’s recent consultation on front-of-pack nutrition labels invited views on different labelling formats but did not indicate their intention to make labels mandatory. This research provides clear evidence that labelling works. We are now urging the Government to make labelling mandatory across all products as this would force manufacturers to show consumers, at a glance, if the product is healthier or less healthy – and hopefully encourage them to reformulate to reduce levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat.” 

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair of Action on Salt and Sugar said: 

“Policies that encourage food manufacturers to improve what goes into the foods we buy will help improve the nation’s diet. Suboptimal diets are a leading risk factor for death and disability and the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced how vital it is for the Government to break the junk food cycle. The Government must commit to mandatory front of pack nutrition labelling as part of their response to the National Food Strategy - alongside comprehensive and strictly monitored reformulation programmes - to support the nation’s health” 

Notes for editors:

Full study reference: Song J, Brown MK, Tan M, MacGregor GA, Webster J, Campbell NRC, et al. (2021) Impact of color-coded and warning nutrition labelling schemes: A systematic review and network meta-analysis. PLoS Med 18(9): e1003765.

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Published 6 Oct 2021

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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