You wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so would you buy food based on its label?

In August this year, Choice called for mandatory traffic light labelling, and has since sparked a nation-wide debate about the effectiveness of different labelling systems. The Milk Moustache’s Naeun Kim investigates what would happen if traffic light labels are implemented.

Geoff Parker:
It demonises a certain product. As soon as a particular beverage might have a red dot on it, that product is instantly viewed as being unhealthy.

VO: It’s called the traffic light system, a controversial labelling scheme designed to instantly tell us the fat, sugar, and salt content of foods. But according to the Australian Beverages Council CEO, Geoff Parker, the system is flawed.

Geoff Parker: What we believe traffic lights will do, it’ll actually dumb down the decision making process so much, that inadvertently traffic lights are actually promoting health illiteracy.

VO: But Choice spokesperson, Ingrid Just, says the system is helping the illiterate.

Ingrid Just: There are many dieticians and health professionals who advocate traffic light labelling because they understand that it provides easy, useful information, at a glance. It’s particularly useful for people with low literacy levels and those for whom English is not their first language.

VO: Under the traffic light proposal, milk would score three amber lights for fat, saturated fat, sugar, and a green for salt; while coke scores green lights for fat, saturated fat, salt, and one red light for sugar.

Geoff Parker: Full cream milk will have a red dot on it. There’s a big concern that that type of labelling will actually turn kids away, and parents away, from providing full cream milk to young kids.

VO: And out on the farm in Milton, dairy farmer Robert Miller is suffering from the supermarket milk war, and doesn’t need another reason to lose business.

Robert Miller: It’ll have a major consequence on us. People will be steered away from eating dairy product. And it’s a saying now, what we eat is what we become. If you take dairy out of the diet, what’s it going to do for osteoporosis? What’s it going to do to children’s teeth? What’s it going to do to children’s bones?

VO: He says Choice needs to look at the bigger picture.

Robert Miller: Milk is product with about four per cent fat, or three per cent fat. That’s not a very high level of fat, and there’s a lot of other qualities in milk besides fat. There’s calcium for your bones. There is so much more to milk than just fat, and I think that Choice is overlooking some of the health benefits that are in dairy products.

VO: But Choice says it won’t hurt the dairy industry.

Ingrid Just: There’ll be certainly many milks on the market that have got low-saturated fat levels, so the farmer might be selling more of the low-saturated fat milk than the high-saturated fat milks.

VO: Marketing and consumer expert from the Centre for the Study of Choice, Dr David Waller, agrees the system can work.

David Waller: It can be simplistic, but as long as people know that, and it’s hard to then put all the detail on the sides to explain every single thing so visually; having those colours can make it a bit simpler and easier for customers.

VO: But the Beverage Council says the current percent D.I. (daily intake) labelling is working just fine.

Geoff Parker: Rather than bring in a system that doesn’t have a good evidence based behind it, that hasn’t been tested, and that consumers aren’t familiar with, rather than bringing that in, we think we should be promoting and getting behind more the current system that’s been around for five years. 

VO: But Choice has the evidence.

Ingrid Just: A 2009 study of 900 shoppers found that when compared against traffic light labelling and other front-of-pack nutritional labelling systems, traffic light labels helped consumers choose healthier options five times more often.

VO: As the debate continues, the 61 recommendations to food labelling submitted by the Independent Food Labelling panel in January, will be answered by the government in December.


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