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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 05:01 GMT
Public want food 'traffic lights'
By Adam Brimelow
BBC News, Health correspondent

Food Standards Agency's traffic light label
There are claims that the traffic light system is easier to use
The public overwhelmingly support "traffic light" food-labelling rather than the system adopted by much of the food industry, a survey suggests.

The Netmums website surveyed more than 17,000 parents, and found 80% backed traffic lights.

This offers a simple red, amber and green guide to nutrition.

But many in the food industry prefer giving percentage figures of guideline daily amounts (GDA) for things like calories, sugars and fat.

The findings come as the British Medical Association announced its backing for the traffic light idea.

The National Heart Forum also says that GDA markings are complex and misleading.

GDA labelling supporters say their system provides people with more detailed information.

To be able to look at the box straight away, know that it's all green and just grab it, is really good for young mums with very young children who want to run away
Claire Perera

They argue that the traffic lights are too crude and simplistic. Both sides reckon their schemes encourage healthy eating.

Cathy Court, a director of Netmums, said the strength of the traffic lights scheme was its simplicity.

Child friendly

She said some of the parents who responded to the survey stressed that the easy-to-use nature of the scheme made it ideal to use with their children.

She said: "An important thing nowadays is to get your children to understand what healthy food is.

"People could actually use it to teach their children about healthy food, and work out healthy options together."

Claire Perera, a mother of two, is convinced that traffic light labelling is best.

She said: "My priority isn't whether I can get a good cereal or a bad cereal. It's making sure I don't lose Luis.

"So to be able to look at the box straight away, know that it's all green and just grab it, is really good for young mums with very young children who want to run away!"

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, BMA head of science and ethics, said: "It is absolutely essential that it is simple, that you don't need to sit down and start trying to work out what that percentage means.

"And the traffic lights system is something you can even see from a distance, so you can start to hone in on the foods that are predominantly green or green and amber, and just cut down on the foods that are marked red."

Not scared of red marks

The independent watchdog the Food Standards Agency also wants the wider industry to adopt traffic light labelling.

Rosemary Hignett, FSA head of nutrition, said the evidence so far was that consumers are not running scared of red markers - as feared by critics of the traffic light scheme.

"They are using the information to balance their shop. They are not interpreting the red as "don't buy".

"They are interpreting it as "high in fat, salt or sugar - therefore don't eat too much of this product.

"So they are using it in a very sensible way, in fact."

Tesco insist they are not seeking any competitive advantage by sticking with GDAs.

The company said it was convinced its approach was better for working out a balanced diet through the day.

It also said traffic light labelling might appear simpler at first, but the GDA approach was more likely to change customer behaviour, and encourage a switch to healthy products.

A mother gives her views on food labelling systems


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