Credit to the Food Standards Agency

There's no question that healthier food choices are priority for many Americans, and they want to know how to make more nutritious choices. Next month consumers will get their first chance to take advantage of the new front-of-package Smart Choices food labeling program. But, recent research suggests that a traffic light system would be more effective.

The Smart Choices front-of-package food label program is the brainchild of the Keystone Center Food and Nutrition Roundtable, which included industry leaders, scientists, health organizations and food manufacturers. The result of the two-year effort is a system of specific qualifying criteria for 19 different product categories, including beverages, cereal, dairy and snacks.

Foods that qualify will sport the Smart Choices symbol with a big green checkmark along with nutrient info. They must meet strict nutrition criteria created by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports from the Institute of Medicine, and other sources of consensus dietary guidance, according to the Smart Choices Program.

However, the program has its critics. Some suggest it's another attempt by the food industry to regulate itself, whether or not they initiated the venture. Others believe that the optional nature of the program will still leave consumers confused about the best nutritional choices. Also, Smart Choices isn't the only food labeling system in place: In January Sara Lee announced its Nutritional Spotlight program, and there are several others in place around the country, such as Healthy Ideas and NuVal.

The problem—which is a global one—is that each food labeling program uses its own criteria to determine which foods are healthy. Also, food companies can pick and choose which labeling system they want on their packages. Recently, one labeling system has gotten the thumbs up from consumers as being easy to understand and useful. It's the traffic light system, which is being considered for use in Australia and several European countries.

The traffic light system uses colors to alert consumers at a glance about a food's nutrient content. One version uses a panel with green, amber and red dots to rate the salt, sugar, saturated fat and total fat in a food. Another version uses just a single colored dot to assign an overall rating to the food, rather than rating each nutrient. 


Like the Smart Choices Program, the traffic light system has its critics, with some questioning the validity of categorizing food as bad or good, and not putting them into context. But if consumers are the ones making the choices, their opinions need to be considered.

In a recent study, researchers found that consumers are five times more likely to identify healthy food when they see color-coded traffic light nutrition labels compared to when labels highlight the information numerically with the percentage of nutrient intake in each serving.

According to study leader Bridget Kelly, most food industries around the world prefer labels that provide the percentage daily intake of nutrients such as iron, sugar, sodium, and vitamins. However, Kelly's study reveals that the traffic light system is the most effective.

Kelly and her team tested four different food labeling approaches on 790 Australians to determine their preferences and ability to compare the healthiness of mock food products. They used two variations of the traffic light system and two variations of the percentage daily intake system. Each participant was exposed to only one type of nutrition label so that each system could be evaluated on it own merits without the influence of the others.

Participants who viewed the traffic light labels were five times more likely to identify healthier foods than those who viewed the single colour version of the percentage daily intake label, and three times more likely to do so than those who viewed the colour-coded version of the daily intake label. Participants also preferred a consistent labeling format across all products.

This study is the second to prove that the traffic light system is more effective. But, only time will tell if it can curb the confusion consumers face in the grocery aisles. The American Dietetic Association recently conducted their own assessment of domestic food labeling programs, and spokesperson Amy Jamieson-Petonic echoed similar concerns of the critics of the traffic light system.

"Nutrition symbols can assist people in the grocery store, but they do not provide the whole picture on how these foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle," says Jamieson-Petonic. "Many factors go into a person's nutrient needs, such as age, height, weight, gender, physical activity level or predisposition to various health conditions. So 'healthy choices' mean different things to different people."

If you're really confused about your food choices, Jamieson-Petonic recommends consulting a registered dietitian. However, you could also speak to your family doctor, or check out the ADA's site and the MyPyramid Plan from the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Source: European Association for the Study of Obesity press release.