The debate over front-of-pack nutritional labelling has divided opinion sharply. As the relative merits of guideline daily amounts (GDA) and 'traffic lights' are being widely discussed in the UK and the EU, Annette Farr believes having a single, unified system that consumers can readily understand and trust is the key priority.

As health and wellness issues continue to dominate soft drink growth and new product development, the outcome of the debate on mandatory front-of-pack nutritional labelling taking place within the EU will be particularly significant.

Currently there are many different nutritional labelling schemes in use within the 27 EU countries. But, with the growing number of health-conscious consumers, the need for one standardised system has never been greater. However, what might be imagined to be a fairly straightforward piece of legislation is not without controversy.

The most contentious issue revolves around the choice between a system based on guideline daily amounts (GDA) and one using colour coding, the so-called 'traffic lights' concept. GDAs indicate percentages of nutrients whilst traffic lights - red, amber, green - show at a glance if a product has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

Members of the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) believe that GDA nutritional labelling is a powerful tool to help UK consumers make informed purchase decisions, whilst the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has backed colour coding.

The FDF says that the success of GDAs in the UK is being replicated across Europe with GDA labelling being rolled out on a voluntary basis in all EU member states, and that the European Commission has put a system based on GDAs at the centre new regulations currently being negotiated in Brussels. The British Soft Drink Association (BSDA), too, supports the GDA approach.

However, a Danish-led consortium has mounted a campaign, called stopGDA.eu, arguing that GDA is misleading on a number of fronts. It maintains that issues such as portion confusion, calorie measurement for children, natural foods exclusion and sugar reference (natural versus added) present misleading information to the consumer.

The Danish consortium, which includes respected organisations such as the Danish Dairy Board and the Dairy Agriculture Council, considers the inherent problems of GDA to be so serious that it is seeking the complete removal of GDA from the EU legislation. The campaigners have yet to fully agree on the alternatives, but nonetheless support a mandatory front-of-pack, traffic light labelling scheme.

Further, stopGDA.eu suggests that independent research into different labelling schemes, how they are interpreted by consumers and how they affect their buying habits, should form the basis for deciding what course of action to follow.

Research along those lines has just been published by the FSA in the UK. The research, commissioned by the FSA and undertaken by a group of independent experts, called the Project Management Panel, evaluated the impact of the various front-of-pack nutritional signposting schemes on consumer understanding and behaviour.

The Panel's chair, Sue Duncan, described the research as "the most comprehensive and robust evaluation of front-of-pack signpost labelling published in the UK and internationally to date. Using a scientific approach, the study has provided information on consumers' actual understanding and use of front-of-pack labels, rather than what they say they understand and do."

The panel concluded that a single scheme would be most helpful for shoppers, since the presence of different types of scheme causes confusion. The research showed that consumers who read labels value them, particularly if they are counting calories, shopping for children, comparing different products, or have a particular health concern such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Also there is a generally high level of understanding of front-of-pack labels, even among those who don't tend to use them, which suggests that raising awareness of a single scheme could encourage increased use of front-of-pack labelling when buying food and drink.

Overall, the favoured front-of-pack label according to the research uses a combination of the words 'high, medium, and low', traffic light colours and percentage of GDA, in addition to levels of nutrients in a portion of the product.

The findings support what is simply common sense. Labelling consistency is key so consumers can compare like with like and, at a glance, make informed choices. As the debate continues in Brussels, whatever is passed into EU legislation needs to be one unified nutritional labelling scheme which consumers can respect and use with confidence.