A labelling scheme adopted by the food industry has been described as ‘flawed’ in a report published by a health group.
The National Heart Forum (NHF) says the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) scheme – used by food giants such as Nestle and Kellogg’s and on some of Tesco’s own brand goods – makes food look healthier than it actually is.
The labels show a product’s nutritional values as percentages of GDAs. The government-backed Food Standards Agency’s ‘traffic light’ system – supported by Which? – shows consumers whether a product has low or high levels of fats, sugar or salt.
The NHF report criticised the way data under the industry-backed scheme was presented.
It says products clearly targeted at children, such as Kellogg’s Ricicles, Nestle Shreddies ‘School Fuel’ and KP Space Raiders, carry the GDAs for adults.
Jane Landon, deputy chief executive of the NHF, also warned many consumers were not aware that GDAs were a ‘limit, not a target’ and described the labels as ‘overly complex’ and ‘misleading’.
She said: ‘‘Without reading the small print on the back of the packet it is not clear that for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt these figures represent limits rather than targets.
‘With as little as four seconds for each purchase, what consumers need to be able to see ‘at a glance’ on the front of the pack is whether a product is high, medium or low in key nutrients.
‘We believe that the GDA scheme is too complex to be used quickly and easily by consumers across all social and ethnic groups.’
Which? food campaigner Michelle Smyth says: ‘Why are Tesco and other manufacturers continually battling against adding traffic light colours to their food labelling schemes?
‘Which? research* shows that consumers are shouting out for a single, consistent scheme to help them make quick decisions during their busy weekly shops.
“If 97 per cent of consumers* can correctly compare levels of nutrients between different products using the Food Standard Agency’s traffic light scheme, there is now no justification for not employing this.”
The NHF claims were refuted by Tesco.
A spokesperson said: ‘The test for any nutritional labelling system is whether it changes behaviour and our nutritional signposts are doing just that. They are helping customers to make healthier choices because they are easy to understand and by giving the actual data rather than just a colour, customers are able to make informed decisions.’
Jane Holdsworth, GDA Campaign Director, said: ‘Consumers are very positive about the GDA scheme and tell us that they find it easy to use and understand.
‘We’re surprised the NHF is publishing separate research into labelling when it has agreed to be part of a joint, independent research partnership with the FSA, retailers and manufacturers to assess GDA labels alongside others in market.
‘This work will provide definitive evidence about which schemes are truly making a difference to driving healthier choices and we firmly believe that the GDA scheme will be proven to be effective.’
Kellogg’s communications director, Chris Wermann, told the Guardian: “We are looking to see whether we can provide children’s GDAs too, but have to bear in mind that 65 per cent of Frosties, for example, are eaten by men over 18.”
*73 per cent thought that it would be confusing if different products use different types of labels.
* Which? interviewed 636 people face to face between 28 April and 5 May 2006 in Tamworth, Birmingham, Chester, Croydon and Weston-super-Mare. Each interviewee was shown one of four labelling systems on a healthy and then a less healthy version of either a breakfast cereal, pasta sauce or ready meal. These consumers were representative of shoppers in Great Britain and were all aged between 18 and 65.