A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics shows that consumers consider sugar content as the most important factor when making healthy food choices. A team from the University of Nottingham’s Division of Food, Nutrition, and Dietetics carried out a choice-based survey with 858 UK participants using the traffic light labeling system (TLL) to select healthy foods.

“When using the TLL, consumers often have to make trade-offs between undesirable attributes and decide which to use to guide them in making a choice,” said Ola Anabtawi, dietitian and PhD researcher, in a university press release. “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 labeling was influencing this decision.”

Traffic light labeling was introduced in the United Kingdom to aid the selection of healthier choices with a red, yellow, and green color-coding system. Supermarkets and food manufacturers use this on packaging to highlight nutritional information. Participants in the study were shown three options of the same food item with different nutrition traffic light label combinations; this was repeated for three products—prepacked sandwiches, breakfast cereals, and cookies. They were asked to select which they thought was the healthiest product.

The researchers found that the foods with high sugar content were by far perceived to be the worst for health with participants avoiding these products. Excess fat, saturated fat, and salt were less off-putting. Products flagged with a red label were also avoided more and had a more significant impact on making a healthy choice than the green label.


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