A colour-coded system for food is the best way for consumers to pick healthy options, a food watchdog says.
A Multiple Traffic Light label
The Food Standards Agency consulted over 2,600 people on four possible front-of-pack schemes.
The Multiple Traffic Light, which shows at a glance if food has high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, came out top for ease of use.
A 12-week public consultation will now decide if this option should be adopted voluntarily by food manufacturers.
Ministers want to introduce the food alerts by 2006, after first proposing the idea in the Public Health White Paper last year.
The public will now be asked to decide whether Multiple Traffic Lights are preferable to a second choice - the Colour Guideline Daily Amount (CGDA), which shows the nutritional content of foods in both figures and colours.
Colour Guideline Daily Amount label
Although CGDA was the most popular with the consumers polled, a third of respondents from lower socio-economic and ethnic minorities groups were unable to use it to identify whether a food had high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Further research confirmed that many people could not apply the information the CGDA contained to the food choices they actually made.
The option of Simple Traffic Lights, where green means a healthy food that should be eaten often, amber an "OK" choice, and red a less healthy choice that should only be eaten sparingly, was not liked and felt to be too basic.
The FSA said it was therefore considering proposing the Multiple Traffic Light for the front-of-pack scheme.
But added that, because CGDAs were also well liked, it was inviting views on that option as well.
The FSA proposes that the front-of-pack labelling scheme should appear initially on foods such as ready meals, pies and pizzas which people eat regularly, and find most difficult to assess nutritionally.
Deirdre Hutton, chair of the Food Standards Agency said: "Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices but find the current information confusing.
"After carrying out rigorous and comprehensive research, we now have the makings of a system that will make it quicker and easier for people to do so."
Many retailers have already developed their own front of pack schemes. But the FSA says people would prefer a consistent scheme which applies wherever they shop, developed by an authoritative, independent and trusted body.
Steve Shaffelburg, of the British Heart Foundation, backed traffic light coding.
"A colour-coded labelling system that allows shoppers to make informed decisions at a glance has the potential to really empower people to know what is on their plate.
"But whatever system is agreed must be adopted by all. Individual efforts by retailers to use their own labelling system - however well intentioned - will only serve to deepen confusion," he warned.
Martin Patterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, said "We're pleased that simplistic traffic lights have been thrown out by consumers, and that the majority of people chose Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs).
"The opportunity to develop GDAs for labelling shouldn't be missed. GDAs have been adopted by industry and are already widely in use."
He said the food industry would want to work with government on an information and education campaign to help consumers interpret GDA information.
Sue Davies, chief policy adviser of the consumer's association Which?, said: "It's crunch time for the food industry to act responsibly and to commit to using this scheme.
"Individual companies should stop developing their own sign-posting schemes which will only create more confusion for shoppers wanting to compare healthy options."
Tom Sanders, head of the Research Division of Nutritional Sciences at Kings College London, cautioned that the multiple traffic lights system would not take into account the varying water content of different foods or the amounts in a serving.
Sue Baic, registered dietician at the University of Bristol, added: "Labeling is only one step towards making the healthy choice the easy choice and if healthier foods are more difficult to get or are unappealing labeling won't work."