STUDY: What would a “Traffic Light” Front of Package Labeling Program Look Like in the US?
With the launch of Label Insight’s Open Data Initiative in late January, academic researchers and nonprofit organizations gained access to Label Insight’s product data in order to advance critical research topics that affect today's increasingly health conscious food shoppers.
Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Americans today have access to more nutrition information than any previous generation. The US food supply is dominated by packaged food and beverage products, with a huge array of information available on product packaging about the healthfulness of each item. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates the declaration of eight nutrients on the back-of pack to educate consumers on what is in the foods they buy . Additionally, manufacturers can display health and nutrient content claims on the front-of-pack (FOP), and can use a wide variety of logos, graphics, and wording to encourage consumers to buy their products. Despite this huge amount of information available to help consumers make healthier food choices, intake of energy dense, nutrient poor foods, and subsequent levels of obesity and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the US population  have continued to increase dramatically over the past few decades .
Front-of-pack (FOP) labeling has been identified as one potential policy lever to increase the healthfulness of foods and beverages Americans buy and eat. In part, this is because this type of labeling can encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products to be healthier, and in part because they can make the identification of healthier food choices more obvious to consumers and respond to the consumer-driven mandate for greater transparency.
Earlier in February, we highlighted how Label Insight’s Open Data Initiative was used to help examine whether or not color-coded front of package labeling was a viable option for US packaged foods. Today, we’re excited to share with you the startling results.
Lead by the ever present Elizabeth K. Dunford [1,2,*], and co-authored by Jennifer M. Poti [2,3], Lindsey Smith Taillie [2,3], Jacqui L. Webster [1,5] and me (Dagan Xavier ), the purpose of the study was to determine if the implementation of a standardized front-of-pack-labeling (FoPL) scheme would be a useful tool for many consumers trying to improve the healthfulness of their diets. The team's objective was to examine what the traffic light labeling scheme would look like if implemented in the US. Data. 2017 data from Label Insight’s database was used.
All products were classified according to a traffic light system - “Red” (High), “Amber” (Medium) or “Green” (Low). The specific nutritional analysis used to determine the classification relied on total fat, saturated fat, total sugar and sodium values and was based on the UK’s Department of Health traffic light criteria. The proportion of products in each category that had each possible combination of traffic light colors, and met the aggregate score for “healthy” was examined.
Out of 175,198 food and beverage products sold in the US, more than 40% of all US packaged food products received a “Red” (High) rating for sodium, total fat, saturated fat and total sugars (Table 3). When the focus was isolated to sugar and sodium that number increased to over 50% of products that received a “Red” (High) rating. The results of the study dive deeper into the specific categories and different types of foods that align with the high, medium and low ratings against sodium, total fat, saturated fat and total sugars.
Interestingly, only 30.1% of packaged products were considered “healthy” according to the criteria, which helps to paint a rather unfortunate picture of the current state of our food supply. Read the entire study now.
This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate what the color coded “traffic light” FOP labeling system would look like if implemented in the US food supply and Label Insight is incredibly thankful to have played a small part by sharing access to our database for research purposes.
It is an example of the effectiveness of the Open Data Initiative and the importance of open data access - it is critical that we continue to provide accurate, current and representative food compositional data to the researchers around the world in order to help drive more transparency from our industry. This is one example of many more studies to come. Subscribe to our blog to receive future studies delivered to your inbox!
1. Food Policy Division, The George Institute for Global Health, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2042, Australia
2. Carolina Population Center, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, USA
3. Department of Nutrition, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, USA
4. Label Insight, Chicago, IL 60661, USA
5. Office of the Chief Scientist, The George Institute for Global Health, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2042, Australia
*Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.