Friday, February 27, 2015

Traffic lights system for choosing right foods-Will it really work as expected?

Food package labeling system is intended to make transparent the nature of food inside a pack to the consumers and this is working reasonably well in many countries. Different countries follow different formats to compel manufacturers to disclose a few critical information about the contents inside a sealed food pack. There might not be 100% satisfaction among some consumers because many facts printed on such labels are "Greek and Latin" to them except may the expiry date! But it has to be conceded that the extent of information provided on labels reveal a lot about the nutritive value and type of additives added which give a fairly good idea about the contents and their nature provided these are given in a language that can be discerned by them. Still it is now believed that more than words and figures many consumers understand better if the same facts are presented through symbols or graphics. It is here the so called "traffic light" symbol system of presenting food as very good, good or not so good with each category represented by green, amber and red color. A recent news report from Australia that some schools are adopting this traffic light symbol format to guide the students to buy most nutritious food is indeed heartening. Here is a take on this encouraging development. 

"A "traffic-light" system ranking foods and drinks according to their nutritional value has been introduced to ACT school canteens, events and activities. Education and Training Minister Joy Burch will launch the new ACT Public School Food and Drink Policy on Friday. Under the policy, food will be placed into green, amber or red categories depending on nutritional value, with the traffic-light system to be applied to the sale of all food and drinks in school canteens and to all public school activities and events in Canberra.  There will be some exceptions for events such as school fetes or birthdays. The policy also prevents sugary drinks from being sold in public school canteens and bans vending machines on public school sites.  School staff will also be encouraged not to eat "red" or low nutritional value food or drinks in view of students while principals will be responsible for ensuring "red" food or drinks are not used as rewards or incentives for student learning.  Ms Burch said the government was committed to improving access to healthy food and drinks  in ACT schools.  She will announce a series of fact sheets  developed to support the food and drink policy and ensure it is consistently implemented across schools.  The fact sheets - which were developed following community consultation last year - include resources for canteens and parents about healthy lunchboxes and how to eat fresh. Ms Burch said the policy was part of a range of initiatives to improve healthy eating at ACT schools. "Our attitudes towards food are formed during childhood so it makes sense that once a child begins school, the school environment plays a role in influencing their food preferences," she said. "This new policy promotes a consistent, whole school approach to healthy food and drinks and will help develop healthy eating and drinking habits from an early age." ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations vice-president Hugh Boutler said the new policy provided support to parents looking to reinforce the importance of healthy eating to their children." 

The traffic light system for food labels is a relatively new initiative not liked by the food industry because of their apprehension that the market will be adversely affected. Unqualified support from British Medical Association and Food Standards Agency in UK lends it much credibility and reliability. Consumer is delighted about this development and wants this to be made mandatory. According to this system, a food product is classified into 3 categories based on the contents of total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in 100 g portion, Green light indicates that the product has total fat less than 3 g, saturated fat less than 1.5 g, sugar less than 5 g and salt less than 0.3 g per 100 g. On the other end, a red light will indicate that fat is more than 17.5 g, saturated fat more than 5 g, sugar more than 22.5 g and salt more than 1.5 g per 100 g. Amber color will indicate values in between the two extremes. Imagine what pleasure it could be for the families to shop looking for products with mostly green light as far as possible and avoid red light altogether. Over a period of time industry will learn to avoid red light on their label by making more nutritious and better products. In India the "green dot" printed on a label of a product denotes it is 100% vegetarian, containing no animal derived ingredients and population, especially those shunning animal products find this a great help in avoiding foods without this symbolic green dot. Government of India must now consider to introduce the traffic lights system to help its citizens, many practically illiterate, or at least unable to read English to wade through the isles of the super markets to pick and choose what they want without wasting too much time in deciphering what a product contains or does not contain through the verbose label! 


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