On June 19th, during the presentation new guidelines for a new French health Bill, Minister Marisol Touraine has declared herself in favor of a new tool designed to make the nutrition information on packaging easier to understand. Of course, understanding nutritional information isn’t always easy, but are we tackling this problem in the right way?
In a recent article, journalists tested the new simplified nutrition information system that we could potentially find on French products in the coming months. For this test, 100 products have been labeled with one of five colored dots - Green for products whose nutritional quality is the best and red for those of lesser value. Other colors are yellow, orange and pink.
This is just one proposed system, with other proposals including star rankings, for example. Similar systems like Noteo, have existed for several years already (2012) and have the added bonus of providing information about the environmental and social performance of products, in additional to price comparisons between products.
What’s interesting about the French Health Bill’s proposed color coded system is that many consumers will be surprised by the “grades” their products have received. Products like muesli, that one might assume would be awarded a green dot, are actually deemed to have lower nutritional value. So, some products are not living up to their general reputation. Other grades are more evident – four cheese pizza gets a lower rank than the vegetarian option. Pretty obvious! Are French consumers really so clueless that they need these kinds of pointers?
For years already, consumers have had fairly straightforward information listed under “nutrition facts” on the packaging of all their products. This information if of good quality, reasonably comprehensive and fairly easy to understand – to help consumers make informed choices. So why change the information system?
This new move reveals that governments aren’t so sure that populations are using nutritional information as much as they should. But what next if this even simpler labeling system doesn’t work?
To decrypt a label and properly use the information it provides, the consumer needs to have a basic understanding of nutrition. Governments seem to forget that when you offer up this kind of quality information about products, you also need to give consumers the tools to use it. This is called nutrition education. It should not be confused with nutritional information (the labels for example). I think the government's responsibility is to educate consumers. The role of industry is to inform our fellow citizens about the nutritional characteristics of their products. When one is not able to fulfill its role, then it imposes on others to lower the level of information.
This new system is in fact a sign that the government is slacking on that part of their job – they’ve given up on educating the public on how to use nutritional information, and instead simply dumbing that information down. We could contrast this policy with that of Finland, for example. Home economics is something that is taught in schools. From young ages students learn to balance a budget, for example. Health is not just a matter of information; it’s a way of life.
Sometimes I ask young about the daily dietary recommendations of the French Nutrition and Health Program, for example. Most people I speak to can recite the slogan "For your health, eat five fruits and vegetables a day." The message is simple ... It really couldn’t be any easier to remember! You should eat fruits and vegetables. But after hearing this slogan, what percentages of people actually consume their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day (or simply consume more than before)? The results are less encouraging than you would think: less than 30% of young people surveyed said they more or less followed this rule. So it’s a simple message, and one that is easy to remember, by I guess just as easy to forget. Case in point: simple information doesn’t change consumer habits.
I find this new “traffic light” system has another potential drawback. Is the public actually going to be less interested in really finding out how good or bad a product is for them? Will consumers get sick of hearing “don’t eat that!” and then just stop listening? This is the kind of typical behavior we can observe in humans everywhere. When such a system is available, why take the time to better understand the role of vitamin A, the sugar or even the fibers in healthy food? I feel that with this system, it will be more difficult to get citizens interested in how healthy their food is for them. Although, we’ll have to wait and see the results of this new system over the coming years to test this theory.
I strongly believe that education is the solution. Of course, this method is likely to be difficult and challenging to implement with meager means. But this is the only way that would allow French to make good food decisions while increasing their general knowledge about food, nutrition, and health.