As some of my readers will know, something over a year a go I suffered a heart attack. Not a particularly bad one, as these things go, but it required two stents in two sessions of keyhole surgery to clear the artery up. I am pretty much back to normal now, but the episode showed that I had a vulnerability. In particular I need to watch my diet and especially limit the amount of saturated fat I consume. So far this has proved successful, though to keep my “bad” cholesterol in the recommended zone takes a hefty dose of statins too. I have done this in large part by paying very close attention to food labels. This has given me new take on the intense competition between the retailing giants of Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Using for labels to help manage diet is quite complicated, of course. But by a very long way the easiest method is to follow the advice of the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and look first and foremost at the intensity of the item: and that is measured in by the weight in every 100g of the product. All labels must carry this information somewhere. This idea is at the heart (as it were) of the traffic light system of food labelling. A low weight per 100g is green, a high weight is red, and amber is in between. You then need to make a judgement as how safe it is given the quantity. You save red for special treats or minute quantities; you are pretty free and easy with green. You treat amber with caution. Looking at the precise weights you can compare the virtues of one product against another. It’s not too difficult once you give it priority – which I do for saturated fats these days.
So you want to see is the traffic light colour quickly on the front of pack label. What would be ideal is to see weights per 100g on the same label when you want a closer look. Of all the supermarkets I use regularly (mainly Sainsbury’s and Tesco, but also Marks & Spencer and Waitrose), Sainsbury’s are, and have always been the clearest – though sadly they do not put the weights per 100g on the front of the packet. The traffic light label is particularly prominent and clear; the back of packet label with the fuller information (which I very often refer to as well, especially for amber products) is not hard to find.
Tesco is the opposite. They do have a front of packet label, but it is almost completely useless. It shows the weights for a unrealistically small portion size, and the % of recommended daily intake that this fictitious portion would be. There is no colour coding anywhere; you have to hunt out the tiny back of packet label and remember the green and red thresholds (the BHF provide a card to help with this). I think the idea is that the traffic light system penalises foods which you only consume in small quantities. But you are left with two problems: first is to work out how those percentages relate to your needs, which in many cases will have special dietary issues (saturated fats in my case) and where you might combine several elements into a single meal; and second you have to work out how your real portion relates to the theoretical one on the packet. Now if your diet consists mainly of ready meals (where the portion sizes are realistic, and where all the elements have been brought together for you) I can see how you can turn this into a workable system for managing your intake. But this is not recommended for healthy eating, and any other way of eating is much easier work out using the traffic lights.
Frankly this is pretty obvious. And yet Tesco (and a few allies) have invested considerable PR resources into resisting the use of traffic light labelling and promoting their own, less workable system. The only possible explanation is that they want food labelling to fail in its aim of encouraging healthy eating, because they make more money that way. And that is evil.
Tesco has grown to be our biggest food retailer in the UK through a sort of conjuring trick: they give the impression of being very competitively priced, while producing consistently high profit margins. To shop in Tesco you are in a sort of fog of special offers, loss leaders and so on. They provide the data to make good decisions, but it is very hard work to use it to get tot he optimum result. Their attitude to food labelling seems symptomatic of their entire organisational culture.
Tesco are getting better. They have accepted a new food labelling standard which will show the traffic light colours (though I don’t think it is as clear as the Sainsbury’s system); they delayed this agreement with their corporate obfuscation, but they have not stopped it. Their margins are under pressure, and they are a bit less tricksy (I think). But their late conversion to higher ethical standards has come at a cost: people don’t trust them. Our local store is now a grimmer place to shop as they are being forced down market and reduce stocks of some of the more specialised things, like real coffee, that I like. Personally I wish I could avoid having to shop their, but our local store is so much more convenient than the other options that we end up buying about half our groceries there. It’s not growing on me.
Sainsbury’s has its own evil ways, doubtless. The fact that our nearest store is a much pleasanter place to shop than the local Tesco is as much down to the size of the store and local demographics as to the corporate style. But their exemplary approach to food labelling (ahead of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, incidentally) gives them a lot of credit in my books. I trust them more than Tesco.