Could Red Light, Green Light be the Next Nutrition Game?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We know there are food labeling loopholes as well as many different front-of-package identification systems. A few weeks ago we learned the 'Smart Choices' program had been halted. However, other identification programs and labels continue to crowd the fronts of many products on store shelves. Some packages contain the American Heart Association's heart shaped check-mark logo, while others sport a Healthy Ideas box or a Nutrition IQ logo.

Margaret Hamburg, head of the FDA, shared concerns recently related to the confusing nature of having so many different labeling and marketing programs on the front of packages. While the back of package nutrition information is already uniform and consistent because of the nutrition facts label, the same is not true for the front of the package, at least not yet.

The front-of-package labeling has been open to marketing buzzwords and manufacturing company guideline programs which have become confusing to consumers without providing significant helpful information for healthier meal and snack choices. At a previous FDA press conference, there were frequent mentions to the Great Britain front-of-package system which Australia also has a version of as well. This stop light type system highlights levels of key "offenders" such as fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. It provides a green light for go for those that are deemed healthier and a red light for stop for those that are not. Of course, the yellow light is reserved for those that fall somewhere in between. This system has been met with mixed reviews in Great Britain and can offer equal amounts of confusion for consumers. For instance, apple juice and soda both receive a 'yellow light' for sugar but I think we would all agree that their nutritional risks and benefits are very different to the individuals that select and consume them. Likewise, they would each have a different place and roll in a healthy and nutrient rich diet. One complaint by nutrition professor Marion Nestle with the current 'Smart Choices' system surrounds its indication that processed foods appear as healthy as unprocessed foods. It seems that based on my example above, it will be difficult for any quick view, front-of-label system to totally eliminate this appearance on an item by item basis. It will be interesting to see what comes from the new discussions for these labeling guidelines.

The original intent of food companies was to keep the government out of the front-of-package guideline decision making by developing and agreeing on their own system. Now that the industry has not been successful at providing a helpful nutrition rating system, it will be interesting to see where regulation comes out and how marketing trends will change as a result. Regardless of what ends up on the front of the package, flipping it over and reviewing the complete nutrition facts label on the back is still your best option for making a healthy and nutrient rich choice for the money you spend to feed yourself and your family.

Tell us what you think. Do we really need a front-of-package nutrition rating system? If you think we do, what type of system do you think would be most helpful for you and your family?

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Calories protein carbs fat fiber salt can be listed with green yellow or red dots based on the low end % of daily allowance per serving for say a 150 pound person. Standards give the public choice based on personal choice. Example my sausage soup would be cal (G) carbs (G) fat (G) protein (Y) fiber (R) Sodium (Y). If I need to watch my sodium I know that I can choose my soup but also need to consider not having two servings. I could also have a serving of grapes that is (G) all the way through the list. Just thinking out loud. Report
If they want to do red light / green light.
They should do it to the labeling already there.
Say If the fat is high, make the percentage in Red, if it is low make it Green.
Some people read the label but can not tell if it really is a good percentage or not.
If Protien is High, make it Green (good) and if it's low make it Red.
Why make it just 3 colors, darker red the worst, dark green the best. Report
As a nation, we have a serious problem with thinking that it's ok to have all of our decisions made for us. Each of us needs to be accountable for the choices we make, and not blame marketers for the results of our actions. Report
There is so much deception and confusion in labeling that we should not rely on any system. The consumer needs to educate themself on what is good nutrition and what is just plain crap. Report
Don't we already have a system in place? Maybe not on the front of the package, but it's there none the less. The current nutritional labeling lets the consumer view the information and decide if the product works for their personal needs. Not everyone is looking for the same information. Most of my friends look at calories and fat, while I pay closer attention to content and sodium.

In my opinon what is really needed is to educate more people on nutritional health and how to read the current nutritional labeling. Report
I think a stoplight system is oversimplified and would be easy to abuse. People would assume that they could eat as much as they wanted of any "green light" food -- kind of like the way people assumed they could eat a whole box of fat-free cookies. And food industry lobbyists would make sure junky foods with a touch of "multigrain" got green lights. (Yes, I'm cynical about the way food labeling works in the US.)

And actually, guys, apple juice is not better than soda. It is a sweet, calorie-packed beverage without much nutrition for the calories. You get a touch more vitamin C than you do from soda, but that's about all. Eating an apple and drinking a glass of water is much better for you.

I think rating apple juice and soda similarly is very fair. Juice is a good way to drink a TON of nearly-empty calories. Eat the whole fruit instead. Report
How dumb do you have to be to have a stoplight system for nutrition? It's probably the same people who would believed in the 'Smart Choices' program, with their 'natural' ingredients! These are also probably the same people who are diabetic and think that because it says 'sugar-free', you can have more and it'd be OK!

I gave up on trying to save people who should know better - I'll have Darwin take over for a while. Report
Although it's not a rating system, I love when the basics of the nutrition info are on the front of the box... I find this a lot on cereal boxes, and they have calories, sodium, fat, fiber, and maybe protein in a nice little display up at the top. This helps me quickly compare a couple different boxes and choose one that meets my needs (whether I'm going for low-sodium, low-cal, etc.) without picking 8 different boxes of cereal off the shelf to compare nutrition information. Obviously the label on the pack is still important because it is more detailed, and I like to make sure I'm not getting any "hidden" trans fats, but it's a great starting point. Report
To me the back of the label is most important. I want fact and measures so I can decide which product is really better for my specific needs. Even the back of the label is inadequate as it stands now. Iím trying for example, to keep someone healthy who, among other things, is in stage 4 kidney failure. I have to control her intake of phosphorous right now but food labels do not have to list phosphorus levels. I have to undergo extensive self-education trying to learn and identify both natural and artificial sources of phosphors under the ingredients list. Itís very difficult. No matter how informed I am I still feel like Iím reduced to a guessing game, and I donít have the luxury of playing games. When I track her sodium levels on the other hand, (to control hypertension and congestive heart failure) itís just a matter of math. You can see on the labeling how much is in each serving and itís just a matter of keeping track. The labeling system needs to be strengthend, yet it seems the industry is constantly trying to weaken it. We really need the nutrition labels to unerringly provide all the information we need so we can take care of our families. No one knows our needs better than ourselves.

As far as the front of labels go, the problem with letting foods be labeled as healthy/unhealthy in any generalized way is that we all donít have the same generalized requirements. They will look at averages and huge numbers of individualís needs will be overlooked in the process. Instead of making choices clearer, people will be more easily confused manipulated. Quite frankly, that in fact may be the intention. My grandmother is lucky, her nutritional requirements and restrictions are becoming more and more complex but she has me to help her. A lot of people donít have help, or enough knowlege or time to effectivly defend themselves and end up harming their health because of misleading marketing. We all need the protection of effective standards and regulation in food labeling.

The industryís efforts have always favored weak standards because of course they would prefer the freedom to sell us whatever they wish using whatever methods they like. The less informed we are the easier they have it.
Though I would not like a rating system for myself, I know many people who can't or won't read labels. Many people who NEED to get nutritional information might benefit from a rating system. Report
So right now, my child looks at Fruit Loops and sees a green check mark - "Hey this is health." Now, as the mom (who ate Fruit Loops growing up), I know that can't be - so I read the Nutrition label and have to explain to a 4-year old that they are not really healthy - even with the pretty green checkmark. I could see her now trying to convince me that soda is the same as apple juice.

The point - If you are 4 and can't read, pictures are you main way to understand things. If you are an adult, you should be able to read the Nutritional Labels and figure out whether or not something is "green light" for you and your family. If people aren't doing that, then a 'nutrition at a glance' isn't going to make them do it either. It will just be more confusing for the rest of us. (I'm still trying to figure the math of Apple Juice = Soda.)

The FDA can't decide on the standards for terms like "Organic" and "Natural" most of the time... Why should we think they can give us a 'nutrition at a glance' that will make any sense..? Report
Sounds to me like lazy people want others to decide what they should eat. The nutrition lable already available should be sufficient for good choices (by each individual) - not other's opinions. Report
I believe the lumping of one-size fits all approach to the epidemics of poor teaching, poor nutrition, and poor lifestyles is bad. People are lazy and will not go beyond their rut until forced to do so. Spoon-feeding small amounts of data is dangerous and self-defeating. Schools fail to educate because we fail to hold accountability where it matters. We need to be addressing the systemic problems of people in society. Too many shifting the blame options already exist. Report
I think the "front of package" labeling will not really work. For juice vs. soda...both had a yellow light label...duh...sure they may be comparable in the sugar department...but come juice is so much better for you. If you are truly trying to watch what you eat and drink, you will rely on the nutrition info. on the back of the package. Report
Nutrition labels deal with facts, not opinions. They provide concise information I can use to make and informed choice on whether or not to eat something. Marking something as good, bad or marginal is simply too subjective. Look at how the color coded terrorism threat advisory scale - you know, the one where we never get below threat level orange - has worked. Not so well. Enforce the nutrition labeling standards so we'll have the data we need to make informed choices. Report
I could care less what the goverment, food manufacturers, or anyone else does on the front of a label - just leave my ingredient list and nutritional information in a location that's easy to get to. That's what I use, and that's what I'll stick with. It's the only reliable measure I've found so far. Report
I have to say I am not a fan. Any metric that lumps too many categories together becomes useless. If you want to know what you are eating, you have to learn to ... look at what you are eating, by reading the ingredient list and nutrition label. It doesn't take that long once you get used to it and learn the brands that are better. For instance. Imagine you've picked up an item and are about to buy it. The time to turn it around and read the label (again, once you've learned what to look for), is five seconds or less. That means sixty items in your chart will take you only five minutes to check. And you don't have to check everything, just new things. The time consuming part comes when you are rejecting an item because you've spotted something you don't want to eat! Or, if you are exploring a food category filled with bad choices, as unfortunately the cereal aisle often is. In that case, a little advance planning with "Eat This Not That" or similar is worth the time, and a red/green/yellow light isn't going to help. What I think gets people about labels is that they want to change their entire kitchen all at once. While that's not bad - it's also timeconsuming. If instead you pick a few areas to improve each week, it is not so daunting to read labels and you will find that it gets faster over time. Report
I think one labling system per country would be ideal. I know that American and Canadian standards differ, but just slightly. It would be nice if Americans had one system of how to properly lable whether something is REALLY good for you as well as Canada. Sure would make it easier when shopping for the foods I enjoy most. A green checkmark, a red heart...who's to know the truth? Read all ingredients is still the best method for me. Report
I think this could work...sadly the food manufacturers need someone to keep them honest. I spend a great deal of time in the grocery store because I watch my cholesterol, sodium, calories and other special needs...I will always need to read labels before a purchase. But others who just want to eat healthy could use a system that is fast and efficient when shopping for the family. Color coding is a good choice. Like a Red S would mean this product is high in Sodium. A red T might mean this product has trans fats, OR red C might mean it is high in cholesterol. I do not think a red letter for all things would work. Report
I live in Australia and I haven't seen any "red light/green light" labelling, the only thing that I have seen (which is a common place thing now) is the RDI table, or recommended daily intake table. That has only become common in the last couple of years though.
Personally I think it'd be fantastic. There are far too many people who don't understand what is in the food that they eat. Make it easier for them to understand and they'll make better decisions. Report
I think the Stoplight system would be a great aid. Green is good, red is bad, yellow means that you need to check it out.

WE know that we should be checking Nutrient labels, and my wife and I usually do. I'm an Insulin dependant diabetic and she is borderline high blood pressure.

Juices are a definite caution to me and a high sodium content would alert her to check what the caution was about.

Finally, the "in-your-face" labeling would psychologically encourage most people to check out why their favorite "X" was red or yellow. I believe it would make a much larger group of people label conscious. Report
I don't think we need more advise. Continue with the food lables and each person can make choices according to their dietary needs. Report
I'm not sure if this red/green light system of rating food items is a good thing for at least two reasons. Everyone has different health needs/problems, just to rate apple juice as yellow because of lots of sugar seems kind of restrictive. Different people need to restrict sugar (diabetic) salt (high blood pressure) saturated fat (high cholesteral). I think the consumer needs to read his/her own labels and decide for themselves. Report
We just need to continue reading the nutrition label on the back. Greedy companies can't help but market their products healthier than they are to sell them. If it's not broke, don't fix it. With the "Smart Choices" program on hold because of inconsistencies, I probably won't trust WHATEVER they come up with and continue using the nutrition label already in place. Report
I see these front of pkg systems as just another marketing ploy. It's very easy to teach even elementary readers how to decipher a nutrition facts label - let's not dumb down yet another aspect of life in America. Don't want to read the facts label? Just look for foods that are whole, close to the source, don't make health claims, and have fewer than 5 ingredients, none of which are produced anywhere but in nature! Report
I really don't see why we need a label system on the front of the package. There is detailed information just 180 degrees away! People need to stop being so darn lazy and flip the box over. Report
I am very annoyed with the food industry and the fab diet marketers. I have read a lot of books, articles, and tid-bits on nutrition. I understand the basics of healthy eating so I am not tempted to buy from of what is said on the front of the package. But I know a lot of people who are confused by the nutrition label and depend on what is said on the front of the package to eat healthy. It's horrible when the food industry can convince a buyer that the candy bar filled with transfats is good for you because it has no artificial color! Report
I, too, think the nutrition label should be on the front. Report
I feel people should take it upon themselves to become more educated about what is a healthy choice. You cannot depend on the government or the manufacturers to make healthy decisions for you. Healthy eating comes from learning proper nutrition and wise decisions. "Skill to do comes from doing" --Ralph Waldo Emerson Report
I say let the mfrs have their package fronts!... If a can says "just green beans" on the front and another says "garden grown green beans" will it make a difference? Smart shoppers don't always look at the front..the Nutrition guidelines is where the purchase decision should be made. Personally, I read for sodium content, calories and fat in that order... Report
I sure do agree with front labeling. It would be so much easier, if all the facts? were right out in the open. I guess for some people it wouldn't matter. If you choose to eat unhealthy foods, you don't care about labeling. I would love to see it, though. I turn everything over for fat, calories, etc. Even so called healthy foods can be full of calories. Report
I'm glad this stop light system has been tried and shown to be flawed. That could save our government thousands of dollars IF they would see that it doesn't work.

I agree... read your nutrition labels. Report
Oh please. I think it's a good idea. How many of you REALLY take a look at every ingredient on the label. Anything that will cut down on the time I spend in the grocery store is fine with me. It's easier to look at something in color.

Also think it would be a great teaching tool for kids! Report
Food labels are a nice tool but good nutrition is a personal responsibility. Some labeling is misleading if you don't know the facts such as what is listed for fat. Not all trans fats are required to be listed if it falls under a certain level. Report
No amount of labeling and packaging is going to change the fact that you should be educated about what nutrition your body needs. I personally think that there are people out there that want all that work done for them. They need to wake up and take responsibility for themselves and what they stuff in their mouths. They just need to demand the information so they can use their common sense to make informed decisions based on what a human being needs to eat. It should not be left to Govt or marketing departments to try to trick us into eating something. Report
I might look at the front labeling but after so many years as a label reader, I go right to the back and check the nutrient label. I am not swayed by the hype words as I once was. Would it be nice tohave a one glance system sure, but I will always read the back label to make sure this is a product that mets my needs. Report
We used the nutrition-traffic light system when I served alongside the Royal Marines. There would be colour-coded counters of food in the galley (canteen): red, amber and green. Red was the danger zone (e.g., fries) - all things in moderation; amber was the moderate zone (e.g., pasta) - enjoy, but not too much; and, green was the eat all you need zone (e.g., salad and veggies). At the same time, the use of salt in cooking was stopped, but salt was provided for those who wanted it. While some pesonnel were up in arms when the new system was introduced, it was great for those of us who wanted and/or needed to be in control of our intake of nutrients.

Now living in Canada, I'm grateful that we have obligatory nutrient content on food packaging; however, compared with Europe, I find the information provided is very limited and I don't believe we go far enough. I would love to see an easy-to-read nutrition-traffic light system brought to Canadian food labelling. I would also like to see the practice of food-production companies paying to use a health organization's healthy-nutrition logo banned as I find it to be misleading. Report
I still think reading the label is the easiest. Then you can decide. I have also taught my daughters how to read the labels.... if it has a lot of ingredients we can't read? We don't buy. I had a nutritionist tell me that one time and I live by it.... we try to stay natural... I say spend the money on all this junk on something like education for our children or start programs for the hungry!!! Just my thought.DJ Report
Well-known pediatrician, Dr. Bill Sears teaches a traffic light system for nutrition with his l.e.a.n. essentials program. I think a front of package labeling system would confuse a nutrition learning system such as his and take away from the intelligence people have to learn how to read a nutrition label. Ultimately we need to take charge of ourselves and learn to read the nutrition labels and not be fooled by fancy front of package marketing labels.
Not knowing how to read the labels is an excuse! The current labels are easy to understand and sites like Spark People and explain what they mean and what daily values are advisable. Report
I would love to see a simple but well-regulated front-of-the-box rating system on foods in the U.S. I've learned to ignore the front label and go directly to the ingredients list and nutrition facts on the back ... but that's a time and energy commitment that not everyone can make, and plenty of people are simply overwhelmed by the details of that information. I know a very young single mom who is buying her infant chocolate milk to drink all the time - it's lowfat milk, right? Kids grow up with undereducated parents who take the path of least resistance when it comes to colorful labels with big promises. A "red light/green light" system wouldn't eliminate problems like this, but it could help shoppers make quick decisions between products and give people pause before choosing very unhealthy items. Report
Nutrition *was* a required class in my school. We did a whole month on it as part of our health class in elementary school every year and again as part of our gym classes in middle and high school. I went to public school and we definitely covered all of the basics. It wasn't a high pressure class, but I paid enough attention that I do well in SP trivia!

What's really helped me is that I became a vegetarian my freshman year of high school. I started reading all of the ingredients faithfully so my mom wouldn't accidentally buy chocolate frosting with lard again. It's just what I do for packaged foods. I look through the ingredients, then look at the nutrition info and *then* look at the front of the package. All of those fancy little logos mean nothing to me if I look at the back and see that the product has more than 30% of its calories from fat, a lot of trans fats or cholesterol or very little protein or fiber. It's not hard to determine if something is essentially junk food. Start reading the labels on the back. It looks confusing, but if you do it faithfully on every trip to the grocery store, you'll figure out a few things that you want to look for and you'll eat better. Report
It dosen't take a brain surgeon to TURN THE BOX OVER OR SIDEWAYS and READ the nutrition label. A majority of people know what to look for in fat, fiber, calorie count, etc. Be responsible for yourself and stop the silly gov't. regulations. Report
Give us the information and let us make our own decisions, please! We already have the Department of Agriculture trying to tell us how much of things to eat, in proportions that no nutritionist would advocate. C'mon, the Department of AGRICULTURE is trying to promote agriculture, not good health. If you can't figure out a label the way it is now, the problem isn't the food company. Report
Isn't it funny that the food industry wants to run their own show?
It's all about money for the food Moguls -- anything to make their chemical laden 'foods' a bit more appealing to the SPENDING person. The best foods don't have labels.... :o) Report
It sounds a little juvenile to me, and I'd probably ignore it. But the up side is, jobs would be created. Someone at every food manufacturer's would have to be the designated Red Light Poohbah... Report
I agree with Sandra1066 about nutrition should be a required subject in school. Give kids the tools to become mindful of their intake on a day-to-day basis. This would also have an impact on families, as the kids would talk about what they are learning. This would also not discriminate against those that still do not have easy access to the internet.

As for the location of the nutrition info, I think the Nutrition Facts panel is fine. Putting more info on the package is redundancy, in my opinion. It clutters the front and seems confusing. Report
This "red light, green light" program sounds like just another way to confuse the consumer. I think it really should be up to the individual to make the final choice. Using common sense along with the nutrion label really is enough. Report
I live in the UK, where we have the front-of-box traffic light system (in some shops, on some brands!) and other systems in other stores. I personally shop at Tesco most, and do find the system to be useful occasionally- like if I'm wondering which cereal bar to buy, I can instantly see without even picking the box up that some are ruled out! Of course, you do still need to check the back of the pack to get the full nutrition info. Overall, I'd say that used properly, the scheme is a good idea. It is open to misuse though- especially by people who don't understand true nutritional values, as in the sugar-in-apple-juice-and-soda instance mentioned in the blog. Report
Whatever the labelling looks like and wherever it is placed on the product it has to be correct, accurate and real, not "adjusted" to make the product and its manufacturers look like they care. It is not real choice if bad nutrition facts are hidden or made less obvious and so called Good nutrition facts are highlighted even if they don't deserve to be. There must be no room for manouvre on what is included and how. Report
Why not put the nutrition and ingredient information on the front of the box with the name and photo of the product? The back of the box would have to remain the same--no fancy photos or other efforts to confuse which side is the front. Few people who donít eat healthy foods are uneducated about basic nutrition. They choose to eat unhealthy foods. The government, who has given the public bad information in the past, (including replacing butter with transfat), will regulate nutrition rating systems. My guess is influential lobbyists will give products like Fruit Loops with a little whole grain the highest rating. Report
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