Public Health Nutrition


Defining and labelling ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food

T Lobsteina1a2 c1 and S Daviesa3

a1 International Association for the Study of Obesity, 231 North Gower Street, London NW1 2NR, UK

a2 SPRU – Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

a3 Which?, London, UK


Objective To consider the use of systematic methods for categorising foods according to their nutritional quality (‘nutrient profiling’) as a strategy for promoting public health through better dietary choices.

Methods We describe and discuss several well-developed approaches for categorising foods using nutrient profiling, primarily in the area of food labelling and also with respect to advertising controls. The best approach should be able to summarise and synthesise key nutritional dimensions (such as sugar, fat and salt content, energy density and portion size) in a manner that is easily applied across a variety of products, is understandable to users and can be strictly defined for regulatory purposes.

Results Schemes that provide relative comparisons within food categories may have limited use, especially for foods that are not easily categorised. Most nutrient-profiling schemes do not clearly identify less-healthy foods, but are used to attract consumers towards products with supposedly better profiles. The scheme used in the UK to underpin the colour-coded ‘traffic light’ signalling on food labels, and the one used by the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom to limit advertising to children, together represent the most developed use of nutrient profiling in government policy-making, and may have wider utility.

Conclusion Nutrient profiling as a method for categorising foods according to nutritional quality is both feasible and practical and can support a number of public health-related initiatives. The development of nutrient profiling is a desirable step in support of strategies to tackle obesity and other non-communicable diseases. A uniform approach to nutrient profiling will help consumers, manufacturers and retailers in Europe.

(Received October 11 2007)

(Accepted April 06 2008)


c1 Corresponding author: Email