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Action on Salt and Sugar is calling for the government to make front-of-pack nutrition labels mandatory after a study showed they encourage consumers to choose healthier food options.

The organisation has recommended the government make the UK’s current voluntary traffic light labelling system mandatory across all products as part of its response to the National Food Strategy.

Action on Salt and Sugar said the move could potentially prevent diet-related diseases such as obesity, strokes and heart attacks.

It comes after researchers at Queen Mary University of London found front-of-pack labelling systems, such as those that use colours, symbols or graphics to help consumers understand nutrition information, were all effective in directing shoppers towards healthier products with lower contents of calories, salt and fat.

“This research provides clear evidence that labelling works,” said Mhairi Brown, research co-author and policy manager for Action on Salt and Sugar.

“We are now urging the government to make labelling mandatory across all products, as this would force manufacturers to show consumers, at a glance, if the product is healthier or less healthy – and hopefully encourage them to reformulate to reduce levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat.”

Some of these labelling systems include the UK’s traffic light system, Nutri-Score (NS), Chile’s nutrient warning labels (NW) and health warnings (HW).

According to Action on Salt and Sugar, while many UK companies use the traffic light labels, around one in four food products does not display those labels.

Read more: What Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy means for food and drink businesses

Furthermore, out-of-home products, such as those found in fast food chains and cafés, do not typically feature front-of-pack labelling.

The research also showed colour-coded labels (such as traffic lights and Nutri-Score) were more effective at highlighting a product’s positive aspects, therefore encouraging consumers to buy healthier options.

Additionally, front-of-pack nutritional labels were considered to be a cost-effective way to promote healthier diet habits and prevent diet-related diseases.

Lead author Dr Jing Song said: “Our comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis supports the call for colour-coded front-of-pack nutrition labels, which all have positive effects on guiding consumers in making more healthful food choices.

“Food manufacturers must now get on board in efforts to improve the nation’s health by committing to putting front-of-pack labels across all their food and drink products and on menus.”

Read more: The real food system changes we’re likely to see in the wake of the National Food Strategy

Chair of Action on Salt and Sugar, Professor Graham MacGregor, added policies that encourage food manufacturers to improve their products from a nutritional and health point of view will ultimately lead to improving the nation’s overall diet.

“Suboptimal diets are a leading risk factor for death and disability and the Covid pandemic has reinforced how vital it is for government to break the junk food cycle,” he said.

Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was presented to government in July and received support from a number of names in the retail industry.

The government has promised to formally respond to the report within six months.

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