March 05, 2011

A new healthy food logo in the Netherlands: nutrition labelling stays high on the agenda

Mayonnaise with Choices logo and Heinz ketchup without
Who's reading the detailed nutrition information at the back of food packages? Not many consumers, and that is why they moved a summary of this information front of pack in the form of a logo, seal of approval or health stamp. Look at the picture at the right; there you see a small nutrition logo at a jar of mayonnaise I found in my kitchen cupboard. These logos are supposed to make your healthy choice more intuitive and easy. Quite an ambitious goal for the typically very small sized logos. Not surprisingly, these logos are currently highly debated and received a great deal of attention in research and policy.

This week, the updated Dutch Choices logo called 'Ik Kies Bewust'  was presented to the public. On the basis of criteria that define maximum levels of nutrients as fat, added sugar and salt, products are entitled to carry the Choices logo on the front of the package. Important to note is that this decision is based on the relative healthiness of a food. So, foods which are better in nutritional quality than other foods in the same category may get a Choices logo. The green logo does this for neccessary basic food groups such as vegetables, meals and dairy products and the blue one for the remaining food categories like snacks. These logos emphasize the positive nutritional aspects to consumers as no products are presented in a negative frame. Not all products joined the Choices initiative, which may explain why the Heinz ketchup does not have a logo and the CalvĂ© mayonnaise has (see picture above).

Nutrition logos which also present the negative nutritional qualities of a food exist as well, the most well-known example is the British Traffic Light logo with its green, amber and red symbols. For example, a red traffic light shows that the food contains a high level of one of the  key ingredients fat, sugar, and salt and should be eaten occasionally. The more green traffic lights, the healthier the choice.
The British Traffic Light label (left) and the new Dutch Choices logo (right)
Proponents argue that front of pack labels are effective in helping consumers make healthier choices. Furthermore, Vyth and colleagues found that the Choices logo initiative has influenced food manufacturers to reformulate existing products and develop new products with a healthier product composition. There are opponents as well. For example, food politician Marion Nestle and nutrition expert David Ludwig are less positive about nutrition logos. 'Healthier foods are not necessarily healthy', they state in their paper in which they make a case for an outright ban for front-of-pack nutrition lables as they mislead consumers. Particularly integrative nutrition logos such as the Choices logos have been critized for creating a too simplifying contrast between good and bad foods. A recent study among 520 consumers by Andrews and colleagues showed that 'seal of approval' type logos as the Choices logo are perceived as more healthful than food with a traffic light logo or no logo. Other studies find that for some consumers the nutrition logos feel as an intrusion; an upleasant attempt to control their food behaviour. For example, the French consumer association sees a traffic light system as incompatible with the French food culture. For the French no red traffic light to spoil the pleasure of eating!

Gezondheidslogo's op eten
Considerable research exists on consumer comprehension of nutrition logos and nutrition profiling methodologies. Unfortunately, less is known about real use in practice and whether these logos actually lead to better diet quality and health. That is not easy to find out as there are many factors that influence consumers' food choices and nutrition labelling is just one of them. In 2009, Hans Dagevos and myself edited a book about nutrition logos: Gezondheidslogo's op eten.Verkenningen rond hun recente opmars. Yes, that is Dutch, so that is why we are working on a paper in which we consider the consumer friendliness of nutrition logos. Keep an eye on this blog; we will update you about our progress.
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