Insider's Guide: Regulating package design & labeling

In the world of grocery front of pack design is widely considered the single most influential form of marketing, often choices are changed at point of purchase, particularly for incremental items such as snacks.

In our second marketing insider’s guide to developing effective junk food marketing regulations we focus on package design and front of pack labeling.

I recently ventured into the supermarket cereal aisle, a forbidding place for a man managing type 2 diabetes. I was looking for a pack of the organic cardboard flakes we occasional give our son for breakfast when my eight-year-old exclaimed – I want that one – pointing to the row of cereals emblazoned with his favourite Disney characters, carefully positioned at his eye level, which was exactly the point.

Package design is the front line in food choice and almost entirely unregulated, it should be the top priority. We advise that any new regulations on HFSS (high fat, sugar or salt) products should include restrictions on the use of characters and people likely to appeal to children. Furthermore, we advocate restrictions on any health claims, even if true, on front of pack and advertising by any HFSS products. These health claims such as – rich in calcium – full of vitamin X ­– existing solely to distract parents from the high sugar levels.

The most important step we advise to reduce obesity is for a clear, mandatory and simple system of front of pack labeling. For a labeling system to effectively empower shoppers to make informed choice it must help those with very limited knowledge of nutrition, limited use of English and impaired sight. The traffic light system fails these three tests, and they often give a misleading overall picture, such as for high-sugar beverages or this sugary cereal which would show three green and one red - a traffic light which feels more GO than STOP.

We advocate a system similar to the EU energy efficiency labeling which ranks all electrical products from A++ to G. Few of us know how it works, most of us don't care, but we love that it is simple, clear and empowers us uninformed customers to make informed choices. Simplicity is essential to engage, inform and empower shoppers - anything else is a failure. For those, like me, with specific nutritional needs or interest in nutrition the data table typically found on the back or side of packs supplies all the necessary detail.

This approach would require a banding of the nutrient profiling model into multiple bands. This will present some technical challenges, nutritionists will howl that it is not possible. Do you think that energy efficiency labeling wasn’t complicated? Isn’t less than perfect? and no doubt has created enraged factions in the electrical goods industry?

This shopper-centric system has an additional benefit of encouraging and rewarding reformulation whereas a simple two-band system gives the unhealthiest products no reason to improve the nutrient profile of their products. This has been demonstrated by the success of the three-band system on the Soft Drinks Industry Levy.

Nutrient profiling is the foundations of all junk food regulations, converting that science into a simple system which empowers shoppers allows us all to stand on those solid foundations.

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