Expert comment: ‘Traffic-lights’ and the marketing of nutrition

Dr Diogo M. de Souza Monteiro (PhD in Resource Economics) is a Lecturer in Food Economics and Marketing at Kent Business School, University of Kent and comments on the following news items:

‘Why food ‘traffic-light’ labels did not happen’

In a follow on article from his BBC series ‘The Men Who Made Us Fat‘ Jacques Peretti claims that the food industry is the main culprit for the murder of the compulsory adoption of the ‘traffic lights’ nutrition labels scheme. First, it is important to clarify the traffic lights scheme was not presented as a compulsory scheme, at least not officially. Second, as Mr Peretti admits, it is not entirely true that the food industry as a whole opposed this scheme, for some retailers and manufacturers did adopt and continue to use ‘Traffic lights’.

Arguably, the consumers prefer the ‘traffic light’ label as they find it easier to read and public health experts believe these labels are more effective in helping consumers make healthier food choice. But do nutrition labels in general and ‘traffic lights’ in particular really make any difference? Do they actually have any impact in making us opt for healthier food? These questions have been the object of much research and debate across the world in the last 20 years. The first mandatory nutritional labelling scheme was the US NLEA – Nutrition Labelling and Education Act, which came in to force in 1994 and obliged all packaged foods sold in the US to include a detailed ‘nutrition facts’ label on the back of food packages. However, the obesity rates in the US have not decreased, nor levelled up, but rather increased since the inception of this regulation, thus one could argue that compulsory nutritional labelling may not be the best policy to tackle obesity. Confronted with this evidence the American Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently investigated alternative simpler and ‘front of pack’ nutrition labelling such as the ‘traffic light’ (see link to report here) and in between the lines it suggests that these schemes alone would not make much difference and therefore recommends that both FDA and USDA to consider a fundamental strategy shift.

As the program hosted by Mr. Peretti clearly shows, the obesity crisis has multiple causes and therefore any piecemeal option, such as the compulsory use of nutrition labels, is deemed to fail. The food industry has long understood the ‘health halo effect’ described by Professor Chandon in the article. Thus, firms are quite happy to (voluntarily) adopt nutrition labels as it has a positive impact on sales. However, the business of food manufacturers and retailers is to sell food at a profit and not to take responsibility for the health of their customers. Therefore, as novel and more comprehensive policy options will likely need to have both demand and supply side dimensions, it is important to fully understand how firms plan and implement nutrition and diet marketing strategies. Researchers here at the Kent Business School are starting to analyze this issue and work with colleagues in other EU countries and the US. Examples of work carried out so far are in this conference paper presented last year in the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association Annual conference and in this presentation at the American Marketing Association/American Collegiate Retailing Association Triennial Retail Conference held this year in Seattle, WA.

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