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Researchers want a nutrition traffic light system on food to counter misleading health claims


Foods should be labelled with a traffic light health score to counter misleading health claims, researchers say.

A survey of more than 1,000 Germans found food and drink packaged with labels saying ‘no added sugar’ and ‘less sweet’ made customers think products were healthier than they were.

However, when the foods were slapped with a traffic nutrition grade of A to E, it reduced misconceptions about the healthiness of less nutritional foods.

Lead author Dr Kristin Jürkenbeck called for stricter rules about sugar claims on products and for mandatory use of a nutrition score system.

'Less sugar' doesn't mean healthy. German researchers found products which were labelled with 'less sweet' or '30 per cent less sugar' were mistakenly considered as healthy by consumers

‘Less sugar’ doesn’t mean healthy. German researchers found products which were labelled with ‘less sweet’ or ’30 per cent less sugar’ were mistakenly considered as healthy by consumers  

However, they found the addition of traffic-light style nutrient labels , like these pictured above was enough to counteract this misconception

However, they found the addition of traffic-light style nutrient labels , like these pictured above was enough to counteract this misconception

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE? 

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide  

It’s been well established that eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This is partly why customers might be tempted to buy a product claiming to be ‘sugar free’ or ’30 per cent less sugar’ thinking they are healthier.

However, experts have cautioned that such claims can essentially trick people into thinking a product is healthier and better for them, than it is. 

Researchers from University of Göttingent tested the impact of such claims, and if they could be counteracted by a truthful nutrition score, in an experiment on 1,103 people in October 2020. 

Participants were recruited online and were split evenly in terms of gender and asked to rank how healthy three products were with different labels.

These products were an instant cappuccino mix, oat milk, and chocolate crunchy muesli.

In one version the products had no extra labelling, while in another they had ‘less sugar’ claim, and in the final version they had this reduced sugar claim and a Nutri-score label.  

Nutri-score is traffic light food nutrition system, like that used in the UK.

It ranks on a scale of five colours from green to red, and the letters A to E, with a dark green A being the healthiest and a red E the least. 

In the experiment, published in the journal PLOS One, only 30 per cent of people ranked the plainly packaged instant  cappuccino as healthy.

But this rose to 41 per cent when the claim ‘less sweet’ was added.

It then fell back down to only 30 per cent thinking the product was healthy when the Nutri-score label, ranking it a red D, was added.

For the chocolate crunchy muesli, only 21 per cent of people thought the plain packaged version was healthy.

But when the claim ’30 per cent less sugar’ was added 38 per cent of people rated it as healthy. 

However, this in turn fell to down to only 26 per cent thinking it was health when the D Nutri-score was added.

These results showed how traffic light-style nutrition labelling could counteract the potentially misleading health claims of products, the authors claimed. 

Neither the sugar free claim or the Nutri-score label of A or B were found to significantly impact the oat milk as it was already considered very healthy by the participants. 

Dr Jürkenbeck, an expert in food marketing, said ‘sugar free’ or ‘less sugar’ could help some manufactures promote a healthy image for unhealthy foods. 

‘From a nutrition policy perspective, nutrition claims, such as those on sugar reduction in foods, are intended to contribute to a health-promoting diet,’ he said.

‘At the same time, they are suitable for concealing the nutritional quality of foods.’

She added that, based on the study’s results, policy makers should restrict the use of sugar content claims on food and drink packaging, as well as consider mandatory use of the Nutri-Score.

In the UK, similar traffic-light style labels can be found on the front of pre-made foods in supermarkets and corner shops.

The UK has a similar traffic light style food labelling system which aims to help Britons make healthier eating choices

The UK has a similar traffic light style food labelling system which aims to help Britons make healthier eating choices

Ministers urged manufacturers to adopt front of packaging labels a decade ago, in an attempt to tackle spiralling obesity rates by flagging products high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.  

The system grades food on four categories, qualities fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. 

Foods are given a ‘red’ light for saturated fat if they are more than 5 per cent saturated fat, ‘amber’ between 1.6 and 5 per cent; and ‘green’ for 1.5 per cent or less saturated fat.

For sugar, it’s ‘red’ if it makes up more than 22.5 per cent of the food, ‘amber’ between 5.1 and 22.5 per cent, and ‘green’ if it’s 5 per cent or less. 

As for salt, it’s ‘red’ if foods are more than 1.5 per cent salt, ‘amber’ between 0.4 and 1.5 per cent, and ‘green’ if 0.3 per cent or less.

There have been calls for various health groups and scientists for the scheme, which is voluntary, to be expanded further 

But critics of the system have pointed out that it is too simplistic, with the merits of some healthy food ignored by the traffic light system.

For example, a chocolate trifle and tub of Greek yogurt score the same on the traffic lights system.

This is despite the trifle containing more added sugar and having less health benefits, such as more calcium, than the yogurt.

The Government is due to reveal its next steps for the food packaging traffic light system in its health disparities white paper, due to be published this year.

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