Fifty Shades of Amber

According to the most recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, 2013 is going to be a very significant year in the world of food packaging: it’s the year in which a government-sponsored, voluntary (but consistent) scheme for labelling food will be introduced, giving a traffic light system for giving consumers an at-a-glance view of what their shopping basket contains.

Whilst the aims are laudable, especially in the world of ever-expanding waistlines and ever-increasing healthcare costs, it’s probably not going to work.

There are three things that strike me the traffic light system:

It’s overly reductive: diet is a complex thing. Much is still unknown about the impact our food has on our health. Reducing dietary advice down to one of three colours runs the risk of over-simplifying and giving a false sense of security to consumers. Traffic light systems are common practice is most organisations, a simple way to “give one version of the truth”; traffic lights don’t do that – they give yet another version of the truth, and one that is abstracted away from the reality of fifty shades of amber.

It’s based on negative principles: as highlighted on the programme, the traffic light system focuses on things that you should restrict in your diet (sugars, fats salt). As such, a glass of water, a can of diet cola and a broccoli floret all would score a full house of green on the system. That gives you no indication about what you should be eating, just what you shouldn’t.

Campbell’s law: as I’ve written about before, Douglas Campbell in the 1970s noted that if you set a measure to change behaviours, people will game the system to hit the targets. The traffic light labelling system runs this risk for both consumers and manufacturers. On the consumer side, over indulging on “amber” products seems the most obvious potential problem to me; for manufacturers, developing products that are essentially badly balanced from a nutritional perspective, but sneak in under the bar to qualify as a better colour on the labelling is inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong – we need to be better educated as consumers of food. But making the complex “simple” runs significant risk of making things worse, rather than spending more time educating people to be able to be wiser consumers…

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