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Consumers use labels to shun sugar

Sugar content is the most important factor for people when making healthy food choices, according to new research.

A team from the University of Nottingham’s Division of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics carried out a choice-based survey with 858 participants using the traffic light labelling system to select healthy foods.

“We wanted to find out whether it was fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt they most wanted to avoid and see whether the traffic light labelling was influencing this decision,” explained researcher Ola Anabtawi.

Traffic light labelling was introduced to help people make healthier choices by referring to a simple red, amber green colour coding system. Many supermarkets and food manufacturers use the scale on their packaging.

Participants were shown three options of the same food together with different nutrition traffic light label combinations. This was then repeated for three products: pre-packed sandwiches, breakfast cereals and biscuits. They were asked to select which they thought was the healthiest product.

“When using the traffic light labels consumers often have to make trade-offs between undesirable attributes and decide which to use to guide them in making a choice,” Anabtawi said. “Decisions about the healthiness of food products were significantly influenced by [the nutritional] information on the items’ sugar content.”

The researchers said the dominance of sugar in decision-making was “unsurprising” given the attention it has received. However, they said other nutrients, like fat and salt, should not be ignored.