A recent study has determined that a two-color traffic light system used for front-of-pack labels (FoPL) on packaged goods is considered the “most effective” in aiding Indian consumers in comprehending and selecting healthier food options.
Conducted by scholars from The George Institute of Global Health, the World Health Organization’s Indian division, Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change, and UNICEF, the study comprehensively evaluated which front-of-pack labels (FoPL) could most effectively steer the diverse Indian population toward making healthier choices in packaged foods.
The research involved 16 focus groups and a survey that was undertaken by 1,270 Indian adults hailing from both the northern and southern regions of the country.
Amid mounting concerns about rising national obesity rates, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) unveiled a draft proposal in 2022 to implement a Health Star Rating (HSR) certification for packaged food and beverage products.
Initially, the agency suggested a voluntary adoption of the label, with a later mandate for it to become obligatory on packaged food and beverage products starting in 2027.
Already adopted in Australia and New Zealand, the Health Star Rating (HSR) is represented by a monochrome symbol that assigns products a star rating ranging from 0.5 to five stars, where a higher star count signifies a healthier product.
Until now, India has not mandated a Front-of-Pack Labeling (FOPL) system. In 2011, it introduced regulations mandating packaged foods to feature nutrition information panels disclosing the quantities of calories, protein, carbohydrates, total sugars, added sugars, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat per 100g or 100ml.
Over time, certain scholars have observed that a significant number of consumers tend not to take into account the nutritional panel information when making food purchases due to its perceived complexity and difficulty in understanding.
In this latest study, researchers highlighted the Health Star Rating (HSR) symbol as “a substantial improvement” compared to the current system in India. Nevertheless, they underscored that the absence of color in the HSR symbol “could represent a lost opportunity to optimize outcomes.”
Color is incorporated in the Nutri-Score label, currently implemented in numerous European countries, as well as in the United Kingdom’s traffic light labeling system.
As part of the survey, information was gathered regarding participant reactions to two-color and three-color multiple traffic light labels, the Health Star Rating (HSR) system, Nutri-Score, and a health warning label.
In general, the study found that 56% to 66% of Indian consumers continued to make identical food choices before and after encountering products featuring front-of-pack labels.
Nevertheless, in instances where there was an enhancement in food choices, the study revealed that the two-color label was most commonly associated with making healthier decisions.
When confronted with products featuring warning labels, Indian consumers were the least inclined to enhance their food choices.
Concluding their findings, the researchers said, “These results could assist the Indian Government in its efforts to ensure that the FoPL that is soon to be implemented includes as many of the features of this effective design as possible.”
The extent to which the Indian government will take these findings into account remains uncertain. Back in 2019, the draft regulations proposed by FSSAI for a traffic light labeling system were deferred for additional consultation, given the strong opposition from the country’s food sector.