The Colo(u)r of Food Fear

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In an attempt to protect its citizens, the United Kingdom is reviewing proposals to implement its own color-coded alert system evocative of the one in place in the United States.

This may prompt cynicism in Americans who are skeptical about the effectiveness of our own color-coded security alert system. They may, however, be comforted by the knowledge that the UK's system would create warnings that are targeted to much more specific areas than our system. You see, the UK's proposed alert system has nothing to do with international terrorists. Rather it will relate to food, providing a color-coded indicator specifically calculated for each item in grocery stores. Additionally, it would differ in another fundamental way -- by indicating the healthfulness of foods, as opposed to levels of security threats.

The UK's Food Standards Agency is currently reviewing five food labeling proposals with the goal of picking a system that will help people make better-informed and healthier food choices. The two currently favored proposals are a "simple traffic light" system (with red, amber, and green circles, which supposedly respectively indicate: eat sparingly, eat in moderation, and eat plenty) and a "multiple traffic light system" (indicating low, medium, or high for levels of fat, salt, sugar, and saturates). Other proposals include an "extended traffic light" system containing a range of five colors as opposed to three (I am trying to imagine the confusion that would ensue if such a system replaced all current traffic lights) and a logo to be placed on specific foods deemed to be "healthy."

The first currently favored proposal, the "simple traffic light" system with one color indicator for each particular food, will be too vague to help consumers make informed nutritional decisions and create balanced diets. To the system's credit, it does account for a variety of nutritional factors, including calories, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, calcium, iron, and percent fruit and vegetable content. However, the system does not account for the presence of other important nutrients in the diet (for example, both fruit and diet soda would be labeled with the same green light "eat plenty" indicator). The system provides only one indicator of a given food's status as "healthful," thereby obscuring which factors account for the product's positive or negative rating.

The other favored proposal, a "multiple traffic light" system, indicates high (red), medium (amber), or low (green) for levels of four food components: fat, salt, sugar, and saturates. This system has a considerable advantage over the "simple traffic light" system in that indicators are shown separately and are based directly on levels of a substance as opposed to a complex formula assigning uniform values to the importance of nutrients (resulting in a system in which some amount of a "positive," such as calcium, must be present in order to counteract a "negative," such as calorie density, in a calculation of healthfulness). However, while it does attract attention to a wider range of nutritional aspects of food items, again, it may lead to oversimplified food choices based on only four factors. These four factors do not even include calories, the most important dietary factor in weight control. Furthermore, the same information is already available on the current, albeit slightly less visible, label on each product.

It may be risky to squeeze complex information -- whether about nutrition or terrorism -- into a system normally used to convey only go/caution/stop. If the UK does implement a new food labeling system, it should be supplemented with education clearly indicating the meaning of such labels and not simply reduce food's qualities to traffic light colors. The Food Standards Agency is currently welcoming input on the labeling system.

Rivka Weiser is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health.