Concern about what people are eating and how those habits affect overall health — from increasing the risk of obesity (soda) to affecting heart health (trans fats) — has many people considering how to encourage consumers to make healthier choices. Some are calling for more accurate nutritional labelling, while others think the very appearance of the label should change to serve consumers rather than serve marketing interests.
With that in mind, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recently came up with a new suggestion: apply the symbolic language of traffic signals to nutritional labelling.
Here’s the problem with nutritional labels, according to Bittman: “Right now, the labels required on food give us loads of information, much of it useful. What they don’t do is tell us whether something is really beneficial, in every sense of the word. With a different set of criteria and some clear graphics, food packages could tell us much more,” he writes.
The solution? Reduce food labelling to a familiar and efficient form. A red, yellow or green “traffic light” offers Bittman, “would encourage consumers to make healthier choices.”
Bittman already has a system worked out. Labels would reflect three main categories: a product’s nutritional value, it’s wholeness as a food product, and it’s affect on humans (workers), animals and the environment. A 15-point scale would be applied and would ultimately determine whether a food item should get the consumer green light, yellow light, or red light.
Bittman concedes that the labelling change is more “ideal” than idea.
“A mandate to improve compulsory food labels is unlikely any time soon. Front-of-package labelling is sacred to big food companies, a marketing tool of the highest order, a way to encourage purchasing decisions based not on the truth but on what manufacturers would have consumers believe,” he writes.
But he argues that food companies who don’t start thinking this way may not be staying current with consumer concerns either. “Even if some might call it a fantasy, the world is moving this way,” he writes.
And even if the future will never see a frozen pizza emblazoned with a red stop sign on the back of the label, for Bittman, the conversation about labelling should continue among consumers and public health experts.
“It may well be that there are wiser ways to sort through this information and get it across,” he writes. “The main point here is: let’s get started.”
Do you think this tactic would help you make healthier choices?