Researchers Suggest Traffic Light Till Receipts to Improve Food Choices

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10 Jul 2017 --- In an attempt to help people make healthier choices about their food, academics at Birmingham City University have proposed a new traffic light system which uses till receipts to evaluate the nutritional content of a consumer’s entire supermarket trolley. The system shows the total data for calories, sugar, fat and salt in a person’s shopping basket and highlights the total in a green, amber or red color. Although the proposal has been labeled by some as “nannying,” the researchers say that it could revolutionize the way we buy food.

According to the academics, the system would allow people to see instantly if their regular food shops are too high in certain elements, meaning they can tailor future shopping trips to reduce potentially harmful intakes. 

Current front-of-pack (FOP) traffic light labeling in the UK provides nutritional information on a product by product basis. 

Click to EnlargeResearch into the project shows that more than 83 percent of people currently use traffic light information to assist them in making their food purchases and more than half said they would like to see the total data displayed on their shopping receipts.

“Current evidence suggests that while consumers find the traffic light nutrition labeling useful, there are limitations, particularly when considering a person’s overall nutritional intake,” lead researcher, Matthew Cole, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Birmingham City University. “A new receipt-based system could bridge this gap, and provide an additional tool to help aid consumers in their food purchases, providing an overall summary of their entire food purchases.”

Cole is working with creative designer Hayden Peek, who came up with the till receipt concept. Initial research carried out looked at the extent to which consumers use the current system to make their food choices and whether an alternative receipt-based summary may be a more useful tool. Over 50 percent of those who took part in the survey stated that a receipt-based system would add additional value and help aid their purchasing decisions.

The researchers hope that the new concept could also be incorporated into supermarket self-scanning devices which could track the nutritional value of a shop as consumers go and offer up alternative “healthier” products. 

Critics, however, have suggested that the proposed system could unnecessarily alarm consumers and does not take into account how ingredients are used. 

Speaking to NutritionInsight, Cole says that although the system does indeed not take into account how a food or ingredient is used, the existing front-of-pack system does not account for this either and could be seen as more limited. 

“If a consumer purchases a chicken breast or beef steak, then there is no way of determining how these might be cooked, e.g. fried, grilled, roasted, etc., or the type/amount of fat used to do so – both of which greatly influence the ‘healthiness’ of the product,” Cole says. “However, the existing front-of-pack system does not account for this either and is arguably more limited. Currently, consumers have to try to work out the average or total of their overall nutritional intake for themselves on the basis of individual products.” 

“However, we propose to provide an overall summary of their total purchases which we argue provides a more accurate representation of their long-term dietary intake,” Cole adds.

“As for ‘alarming’ shoppers – I don’t think that this particularly an issue. At the moment the majority of the developed world is experiencing an obesity epidemic and these trends are projected to continue for several years to come. Thus, if we manage to shock or alarm a few shoppers into seeing how unhealthy their shopping habits and helping them make positive changes then that would actually be a successful outcome for the project,” Cole concludes.

by Lucy Gunn

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