diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 24, 2008

The UK government yesterday launched a multi-million pound campaign to try to cut levels of obesity across Britain. Because too many of us are fat bastards, and we're all going to die. Obviously. The new campaign contains lots of sensible ideas, most of them old favourites, and most of which chubby and would-be-chubby people will ignore. And then there's this one...
"A single, simple and effective approach to food labelling used by the whole food industry, based on the principles that will be recommended by the FSA in light of the research currently being undertaken."
At the moment, as you've probably noticed, there are two competing approaches to presenting nutritional information on the front of packaged food. One is simple, and the other is a bit more complicated. One is favoured by the government and used by most supermarkets, and the other is favoured by sellers of nutritionally dodgy food and used by Tesco. But only one scheme can win out. And I'm quite surprised by which I prefer.

Traffic lights
traffic lightsThis is the straight-forward system, with the backing of the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health. Pictured is the Sainsbury's version, which looks like a Trivial Pursuit counter (but with proper full fat cheese). Five major nutritional types are depicted, and you can tell at a glance whether you should be cramming this food down your gullet or not. Green = good; amber = occasionally; red = imminent death. Very useful for quickly identifying which of several identical ready meals is jammed full of nasty salt and killer calories, and which isn't quite so bad. But not very useful if you're colour blind. And, ludicrously, the colours have nothing to do with the actual amount of fat/salt/etc inside the packet. The numbers do, but the colours don't. The colours are based on 100g of food, whether the packet contains 100g or not. A tiny pack of ten peanuts would show up red, for example, because 100g of peanuts have a lot of calories. But a huge bucket of fizzy drink might only show amber, because a mere 100g of fizzy drink (one third of a can) isn't going to kill you. It's all a bit basic, a bit broad-brush, a bit over-simple.
All about the traffic light system

Guideline Daily Amounts
GDA percentagesAnd this is the complicated system, with the backing of Tesco, Kellogg's, Nestlé and other stodge-peddling multinationals. Pictured is the label from a steak and mushroom pie I ate earlier, with figures based on recommended daily consumption. There are lots of pretty traffic light colours, but oddly these are completely irrelevant. Sugar may be coloured red, but it's actually the sugar in this pie that's the least unhealthy ingredient. Look, the fat content is huge, and that's for just a quarter of the pie. Eat half of the pie and you'd be eating a day's saturated fat all in one go. I like this label because it's based on actual portion size, and the figures depicted can (and do) actively stop me from eating too large a slice. But the label also contains supposedly difficult mathematics (ie percentages), which is enough to scare off most shoppers. If half the adult population can't quickly interpret this label in a supermarket aisle, then it's not going to provide any motivation to buy the healthy option. Shame.
All about the Guideline Daily Amounts system

I fear that, in the government's new drive to enforce one single food labelling system, lowest common denominator design will win out. Labels will show less information rather than more, because more information confuses stupid people. Red, amber, or green, that's all we'll get. But it won't really be enough. When every pizza in the freezer cabinet shows red for saturated fat, who's to spot that the triple-cheese feast is the real killer. Once I've bought my amber Pringles, what's to stop me from eating the entire tube? Obesity isn't just about what the nation eats, it's about how much. Fat chance of us winning the battle.


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