Food labels, big industry and cancer: what you need to know

30 January 2019

Maxine Lenza, our Press and Communications Officer, gives us the low-down on front-of-pack food labelling. 

When our World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International Policy team told me about their new report on front-of-pack food labelling, I was sceptical it would interest someone like me who doesn’t work in nutrition policy.  But I was wrong. When I sat down with members of the Policy team for a quick-fire session on front-of-pack food labelling, I learnt a lot, and realised how little I knew about front-of-pack labels and how they impact my life.

What is a front-of-pack food label?

It sounds self-explanatory – a label on the front of a food product. But there is a subtle difference between front-of-pack and back-of-pack food labels. Back-of-pack labels give a detailed breakdown of the ingredients plus the nutritional content in a table format. However, a front-of-pack label is a synonym for quicker and easier to understand labels providing information about how healthy a food product is. Turns out I already know of one front-of-pack food label, and chances are you know it too but maybe you don’t realise.

Traffic lights 

I’m talking about the numbers and percentages in small circles on the front of many food products that are coloured red, green or amber. They are known as traffic light labelling, and if you go to your food cupboard now, you’ll probably find that some of the products you bought have these labels on.

What other front-of-pack food labels are there?

There are two main categories, interpretive, which include a judgement on the healthiness of the food, and non-interpretive, which simply give information with no judgement on the healthiness of the food. Interpretive labels can also be broken down further into summary indicator systems (such as France’s Nutri-Score below, or the Australian Health Star Rating) and nutrient specific systems, like the UK's traffic light labels or Chile's black warning labels

Why do labels on food help prevent cancer?

The million-dollar question! Our research shows that being overweight or obese is a cause of 12 different types of cancer. What you eat plays a major role in maintaining a healthy weight. But in the current food climate, where there are so many different choices on the shelves – low fat, fat-free, reduced calories, no added-sugar, lite – how are we supposed to know which food product is healthier? Enter the front-of-pack label. They act to empower consumers, assisting people in making informed, healthier choices by presenting the nutritional value of a specific product in a quick and easy to understand way. 

Why aren’t these helpful labels on all foods?

That is where our Policy team comes in! Generally, big industry aren’t always keen on adding certain labels to their food products. Depending on the country you are in it will result in a load of red circles, black circles or a one star rating being added to their products, potentially putting people off buying those products – the opposite of what the billion-pound food advertising industry is trying to achieve. So, industry put pressure on governments around the world to try and stop them from introducing policies that require food products to have these front-of-pack labels. 

How does industry prevent governments from taking decisive action?

Unsurprisingly, the food and drinks industry use similar tactics as tobacco companies did all those years ago, which can be summed up as ‘Delay, Divide, Deflect, Deny’. But, our Policy team have put together a handy report that governments and policymakers can use to overcome obstacles such as industry interference or a lack of political will.

So next time you are in the shop trying to decide which packet of biscuits you want, why not compare their traffic lights and opt for the one with the least red!


Maxine Lenza | 30 January 2019