Turn on the "traffic lights" for healthier food choices

SINGAPORE - Australia is proposing to use front-of-package (FOP) star ratings to signal the nutritional value of processed food items.

Ranging from a half-star to five stars, the latter being the healthiest, the stars signal if there is an excess of calories, fats, saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, and a "positive" ingredient, say, fibre.

The FOP idea plays to people's tendency to look at a package's front only whereas the nutrition facts panel is almost always on the packaging's back or sides.

This easy-to-understand FOP way of expressing the nutritional content of foods is known as sign-posting, or posting chunks of information as signs that grab the attention of people who can't stop to stare. And what would do that better than traffic lights?

First begun in a government initiative against childhood obesity from early 2000, the British FOP "traffic lights" labelling scheme - of which the Australian stars system is a weaker cousin - uses red, amber and green FOP markings.

These indicate in that order high, medium and low amounts of calories, fats, saturated fat, salt and sugar in processed foods.

The colours demonstrably help consumers make quick and accurate decisions about whether a food product is healthy or not.

In Singapore, this detailed form of sign-posting is not used yet. Instead, the Healthier Choice symbol (HCS) for packaged food items is. Covering over 60 food categories which meet the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) nutritional standards for fats, saturated fat, sodium and dietary fibre, it is a logo placed on approved items. For example, breads with the HCS must have zero trans fat, less sodium (under 450mg per 100g) and more fibre (over 3g per 100g) than regular white bread.

Studies show that some 70 per cent of people here can identify the HCS and they claim it impacts their food choices. But there is no empirical data as to what they really understand about the food labeling information the HCS conveys and how they use it.

This is also true in most other countries as well. That is, most studies simply establish what proportion of the populace is aware there is nutritional information on packaged food but not how they actually use that information.

Thus, it is not generally known if and how consumers may change their daily eating habits as a result of such information. One study of diabetics who saw themselves as reading food labels closely did not, however, use that information to achieve better diabetic control.

In fact, they were shown to lack understanding of the nutritional information presented.

This is, in part, because the information on the nutrition facts panel is usually devoid of any meaningful cognitive context for decision-making. Thus, as currently presented, nutritional labelling may not be correctly conveying its message.

In this, the British FOP colour-coded scheme has much to commend it because it is grounded in cognitive psychology research about how people actually process information.

Cognitively, none of us is perfectly logical or able to process all the information received. People may think they use their analytical skills to make sense of their surroundings.

While those skills could well be employed, the way we approach situations, especially new ones, is to fall back on knowledge structures or mental models - schemas - that "pre-exist" in our heads to help organise and interpret unfamiliar information.

These cognitive short cuts come into play especially where there is a surfeit of information in our environment.

The universal coloured traffic light system is one such schema.

Familiar to all consumers, it makes nutritional content that much easier to understand.

As the red light always means "stop", the green "go" and the amber "caution", a food item's nutritional information is immediately grasped by its colour.

The system explicitly seeks to provide key information to individuals who "want to make the healthier choice but are in a hurry".

As such, this FOP way attracts such buyers' attention in the midst of the cognitive clutter that dogs their purchase decisions.

The colour code, moreover, also helps to overcome a cognitive bias called "anchoring" that commonly affects decision-making.

Say, you pick up a packet of frozen Thai pineapple rice at the supermarket that says 800 calories.

In its vicinity are other offerings that range from 600 to 1,200 calories.

You might then think going Thai was quite right because you would anchor your decision for 800 calories relative to the 600 calories on the low end and 1,200 calories on the high end.

But if the Thai offering had one amber and three red lights as well, you might well think again.

By ranking the ingredients on a three-colour scale, the anchoring effect is lessened. That is, ranked on an absolute scale of high-medium-low and not relative to one another, other food items in the surroundings are less likely to influence one's purchase decision.

The colour scheme also helps to overcome the Achilles heel of the typical doctor's advice to cut down on one's daily intake of saturated fats and carbohydrates:

Most of us don't know accurately how much of saturated fats or carbs is really permissible.

Of course, it simplifies matters in a way that might upset nutritionists but it helps overcome known cognitive shortfalls and thus can help non-nutritionists, which most of us are, make more informed nutritional decisions.

And it is somewhat less paternalistic than the HCS scheme as it leaves consumers the freedom to decide how many red or amber lights they may wish to "jump".

The HPB should consider adopting the colour scheme here and not just for processed, packaged foods but also for dishes sold in foodcourts, fast-food stores and restaurants, given that most locals eat out much of the time.

A campaign to inform consumers here about such a scheme would be needed, of course, but it could well help fight obesity.

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