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Sellman's labels make fizzy drinks look healthier than milk

Media release from NZ Food & Grocery Council
Sellman's labels would make fizzy drinks look healthier than milk

The traffic light labelling system for food and beverages championed by Professor Doug Sellman would make fizzy drinks look like a healthier food choice than milk, says Food & Grocery Council Chief Executive Katherine Rich.

Prof Sellman recently used the death of an Invercargill woman to push his argument that a classic traffic light system – which “would provide a red, amber, or green indication for four components, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, on the front of supermarket products” – could be part of a solution to prevent such extreme cases of unhealthy consumption. According to Prof Sellman, providing a rating across the main nutrients, consumers would “at a glance” be able to determine which of the foods for sale are “good for health, so-so, or not good for health’’.

“While this ‘green is good, red is bad’ approach to rating food seems so compellingly simple, unfortunately in practice such a scheme has some fundamental flaws,” Mrs Rich says.

“The example of fizzy drinks, the platform for Prof Sellman’s arguments, is ironically one of the clearest examples of how such a simplistic labelling system can lead to confusing messages for consumers and unintended consequences.

“Using his proposed scheme, soft drinks, both full sugar and diet options, end up with a colour rating that ‘at a glance’ looks healthier than milk and a range of other foods which are important to a healthy and balanced diet.

“Full-sugar soft drinks would score three green lights because they have zero fat, zero saturated fat, and are low in sodium. They would score just one red light – for sugar content. Artificially sweetened soft drinks would score the maximum four green lights.

“Milk, on the other hand, would score three orange lights and one green light.

“Looking just at the traffic light scores, important parts of a healthy diet, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, all look like less healthy choices.

“Is this really the message Professor Sellman wants labels to be giving people? To give New Zealanders the impression that these important parts of a healthy diet are less healthy?”

Mrs Rich says there are other anomalies in using such a system, particularly when some proponents have called for the extension of such a system to alcoholic beverages.

“Regulators in New Zealand and Australia already understand that this would be unwise. Under a traffic light labelling system, spirits such as vodka, gin and whiskey would attract the maximum number of four green lights because they contain zero fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar.

“European research concludes that people generally interpret a red label as ‘stop’ and a green label as ‘go’, so in instances such as these, a traffic light system can again work against messages about the importance of a healthy and balanced diet.

“Just as pigging-out on green-labelled foods won’t lead to a balanced diet, neither will avoiding all red-labelled products. Milk, cheese, honey, raisins, and breakfast spreads such as Vegemite and Marmite would all most likely attract a red label, but each of these foods is important to a balanced diet.

“Rather than ‘commercial activity’ walking over health concerns, as Prof Sellman claims, commerce has actually helped New Zealand consumers dodge an overly simplistic and misleading labelling system and its unacceptable unintended consequences.

“The potential for confusing messages for consumers was one of the reasons the classic traffic light labelling system for food and beverage was dismissed by government ministers from New Zealand and the Australian States and territories in December 2011, when they called for the development of some other labelling system to promote healthier choices.

“The food industry supported that decision and is working with officials to consider alternate informative schemes,” Mrs Rich says.
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