How Color-Coded Nutrition Labels Can Help Support Healthier Diets

Over the last year, The Coca-Cola Company has been working with four other food and beverage companies (Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever) to develop a new color-coded nutrition labelling scheme that will soon begin trials in more than 20 countries across Europe.  Wouter Vermeulen, Senior Director of The Coca-Cola Company’s Public Policy Center outlines how he believes the new color-coded Evolved Nutrition Labelling (ENL) scheme can provide a simple way to help people make more informed food and drinks choices and help contribute to a healthier food environment.

Why is Coca-Cola proposing changes to the current front of pack food labelling scheme?

We’re always looking at how we can provide people with more clear and accessible information about what’s inside our drinks to help them make more informed choices. Last year, we saw an OECD obesity report that mentioned that according to available literature, traffic-light systems have the potential to increase the number of people selecting a healthier option by 18% and lead to a 4% decrease in calorie intake.  That’s a significant impact by simply evolving and improving the information we already provide on our packs.  Since then, we’ve been working closely with other leading food and beverage companies to evolve the existing Reference Intake (R.I) scheme (previously known as GDAs) familiar to consumers and develop a scheme that provides simple, easy-to-understand and meaningful nutrition information with the goal of helping people make more informed and balanced food choices.  After developing the Evolved Nutrition Labelling scheme for more than a year, and hearing encouraging stakeholder feedback along the way, we think it’s important we now understand the real-life impact of the scheme through trials and across Europe.

What is the value of ENL trials across Europe?

While there are lots of different views on the future of nutrition labelling, we believe it’s essential that a proposed scheme achieves impact and really works, to help address society’s health challenges.  After the existing Reference Intake schemes (previously known as GDAs), the ENL trials are the only FOP labelling initiative – to our knowledge - that aims to gather real-life consumer insights for one common front-of-pack label scheme across a representative EU population. These trials can give us a clear assessment of the real-life impact of ENL and can make a meaningful contribution to the current EU Commission led process on the evaluation of all nutrient labels.

What’s the challenge with the current approach used across Europe?

We know that people today care more than ever about what’s inside the food and drinks they enjoy and the labels people see are one of the most important ways to help give them that information.  Our industry has long supported progress and innovation in labelling and more than a decade ago, we introduced voluntary GDA labelling, which more than 500 million people across Europe are now familiar with and you can see throughout stores in Europe. That’s been very successful in providing people with an easy-to-understand view across food and drinks, and across Europe.  However, more recently, we have seen the introduction of many different national approaches which could fragment labelling across the single market and may actually confuse consumers more than making choices simpler for them. That’s why we developed Evolved Nutrition Labelling that is built on the current monochrome label used across Europe already and that helps consumers even more by matching colors to the numbers for each nutrient and per portion size. 

Who else did you work with to develop the scheme?

Our starting point is the color-coded label initiative being used in the UK and Ireland, which we have evolved to better reflect the importance of consuming food items in smaller portions.  We’ve spent more than a year listening to the views and opinions of government representatives, academics, public health and nutrition experts and of course, our consumers. And we have been encouraged by the feedback we’ve heard along the way.  We also surveyed more than 3,500 consumers across 7 EU Member States to hear their views and saw a clear preference for information based on portion sizes, and that 8 out of 10 people found ENL labels easy-to-understand and helpful.  This research was insightful, however it’s critical we understand the real-life impact and that’s why we are beginning these trials.

When will you begin trials and what do you hope to learn?

We’re starting the trials across more than 20 European countries from later this year and people will gradually see ENL labels – and more colors! - appearing on shelves from then.  We want to see for ourselves the real-life impact that the ENL labels have on consumer understanding, behavior and purchases. We’ve also committed to openly sharing the findings so they can contribute to the European Commission assessment of nutrient labelling schemes.  We expect to have some of the data by the end of 2020.

Is there a risk that consumers could find the colors misleading?

Our consumer research has shown a strong consumer preference for color-coded versus black-and-white labelling, and we believe matching actual portion sizes with colors is clearer than expecting consumers to convert 100gr to the actual portion they will consume. Not everyone wants or needs the same diet or the same level of nutrients. The ENL scheme has been designed with today’s modern consumers at its heart.  People want to know as much as possible about the food and drinks they choose each day and make choices based on their own personal preference, lifestyle and health status.  The scheme is designed to help people pick-up one of our soft drinks, for example, and quickly and clearly see the levels of calories, fats, saturated fats, salt and sugar – along with corresponding red, amber or green colors - for an actual real-life portion size they are likely to consume and also, how that contributes to their overall daily diet.

How can you accurately calculate portion sizes proposed?

Most people don’t consume food or drink in exactly 100 grams or 100 ml sizes and so we recognized the importance of providing information based on the portion-size people will likely enjoy. That includes large portions for some foods and small portions for others.  Similarly, we also know that people don’t typically enjoy drinks in small portion sizes under 100ml, and so the approach we are using for beverages is identical to the current UK labelling scheme, with specific thresholds determining the red, amber and green color coding. 

In the absence of EU-defined portion sizes, the ENL companies sought scientific expertise to develop a credible methodology to identify the average reference portion for food in the EU which you can find on our ENL web site. Today, information per portion is already given to consumers by food manufacturers. However, there is not a harmonization of portions across all food categories, which can provide clarity for consumers and certainty for business.  We hope the European Commission and the multi-stakeholder platform will take stock of the progress made on the portion work and issue a recommendation in due time. 

There are a number of other proposals that have been set out for the future of labelling.  Why are you proposing the ENL scheme rather than a government backed model?

There are a number of different views and opinions on how nutrition labelling should look across Europe. EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC) provisions for both food business operators and EU Member States to develop front of pack labelling schemes provided that specific criteria are met. The ENL companies have conducted research in 7 EU Member states showing that consumers understand ENL and have conducted stakeholder engagement for over one year with 300+ stakeholders across Europe. We firmly believe that a clear assessment of the real-life impact of ENL can make a meaningful contribution to the EU Commission led process on the evaluation of nutrient labelling.

Why is one approach across Europe so important?

A harmonized approach gives consumers a consistent view across all products in Europe, whether created in their home market or imported, governments a European-wide model that is scalable and businesses a level-playing field which reduces the cost of doing business across multiple regions.  For us, a harmonized approach gives a win-win scenario and we have welcomed the European Commission’s efforts to assess all of the schemes available.

How does this fit in with your wider strategy? What else are you doing?

Nutrition labelling is an important part of a comprehensive and holistic approach we are taking to create a healthier food environment and to help people better manage their sugar intake from our drinks.  We have been responding to this consumer need by reducing sugar in our drinks, introducing new low and zero sugar beverages, providing smaller pack sizes and much more with a culture centered on the needs of today’s consumer and innovation.