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Effectiveness of “Traffic-Light” Food Labeling and “Junk-Food” Taxes

Two of the most commonly proposed population-wide measures to prevent and reduce the health burden of obesity are a simple front-of-package food label (green-yellow-red) and the taxation of junk foods.

But would such measures truly be cost effective?

This question was now addressed by Sacks and colleagues from Deakin University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, who modeled the cost effectiveness of ‘traffic-light’ nutrition labelling and ‘junk-food’ tax in a paper just published in the International Journal of Obesity.

For traffic-light labelling, the researchers estimated changes in energy intake based on an assumed 10% shift in consumption towards healthier options in four food categories (breakfast cereals, pastries, sausages and preprepared meals) in 10% of adults.

For the ‘junk-food’ tax, price elasticities were used to estimate a change in energy intake in response to a 10% price increase in seven food categories (including soft drinks, confectionery and snack foods).

Changes in population weight and body mass index by sex were then estimated based on these changes in population energy intake, along with subsequent impacts on disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

Based on the 2003 Australian population, both interventions would reduce mean weight (traffic-light labeling: 1.3 kg; ‘junk-food’ tax: 1.6 kg) and avert a substantial number of DALYs (traffic-light labeling: 45 100 years and ‘junk-food’ tax: 559 000 years).

The authors concluded that despite cost outlays of AUD 81 million for traffic-light labeling and AUD 18 million for ‘junk-food’ tax, both interventions would be cost-effective and excellent ‘value for money’.

Obviously, this would be great, if indeed the underlying assumptions were correct.

Interestingly, however, the same authors, in a previous study, found virtually no effect of traffic-light-labeling on driving UK consumers to make healthier choices. Regular readers may also recall previous posts on the rather small effects of taxing sodas or other “unhealthy” foods.

This is not to say that population-wide measures to prevent or reduce the burden of obesity, if found effective, should not implemented.

However, we must also remember that any such measures, even if effective in reducing the average weight of the population by a few kilos, will still leave the millions already struggling with obesity in want of treatments.

Toronto, Ontario

Sacks G, Veerman JL, Moodie M, & Swinburn B (2010). ‘Traffic-light’ nutrition labelling and ‘junk-food’ tax: a modelled comparison of cost-effectiveness for obesity prevention. International journal of obesity (2005) PMID: 21079620

Sacks G, Rayner M, & Swinburn B (2009). Impact of front-of-pack ‘traffic-light’ nutrition labelling on consumer food purchases in the UK. Health promotion international, 24 (4), 344-52 PMID: 19815614


  1. Some problems I see with this kind of measures:

    1. Making “junk food” cost more doesn’t help if one doesn’t have enough money to buy the healthier options to begin with. Even if they cost the same, junk food tends to be more energy-dense, highly palatable and easy to prepare, and therefore may be a better option depending on each individual’s circumstances.

    2. Eating healthy food doesn’t necessarily imply consuming less calories, sugar or fat. Are they going to add “red-light” labels to dates, nuts or potatoes next?

    3. Demonizing certain foodstuffs may be a dangerous game. Some of the low-fat, low-sugar products might be ok by the traffic-light system, but their ingredient lists look scary, and not that much different from the so-called “junk food”.

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  2. You know Arya, I wrote about this very subject earlier on my own blog. This article has really provided me with lots of food for thought and I feel that you have made some really interesting points. In fact, I just wish I’d found it before I wrote my own article! – cars2scrap.

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  3. I had a business with lots of healthy food and regardless of the labelling, people just chose what they liked. Unfortunately much of the time this was not the healthier choices. There needs to be a push for food suppliers like restaurants and grocery stores to make great tasting meals that people will reach for.

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