TORONTO -- A new study suggests that attaching specific warning labels to the front of food packaging could not only help cut down unhealthy eating habits, but could cut down on the risk of Canadians dying of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

The study specifically looked at traffic light labelling (TLL), in which a red traffic light symbol on the front of food packaging can serve as a quick visual warning to customers to prompt them to look more closely at the fine print on a product, whereas a green traffic light might indicate a healthier option.

In a past study, it was modelled that using TLL in Canada correlated with a reduction in Canadians’ “intakes of energy, total fat, saturated fat, and sodium by 5%, 13%, 14% and 6%, respectively.”

Published Friday in scientific journal PLOS ONE, the study builds on previous work that found that TLL use in Canada could lead to a reduction of energy, total fat, saturated fat, and sodium consumption. Researchers wanted to investigate if avoiding products with red traffic light labels on them also contributed to a lower mortality rate for those with non-communicable diseases in Canada.

The study used data from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), a nutritional survey from 2004 that included nearly 20,000 Canadian adults over 19.

All food consumed by the participants in CCHS had been given a colour ranking of red, yellow or green in the following categories: total fat, sodium, saturated fat and total sugars.

If a food product received a red ranking in one of the categories, attempts were made to replace it with a similar product that had a better ranking. For example, the researchers replaced a brand of oat flakes that didn’t make the mark with another brand that did. Researchers also prepared food differently or replaced regular versions of products with fat-free or low-sodium versions in order to follow the colour guidelines.

The amount of food that participants consumed was not changed in any way, only the healthiness of the food as determined by the TLL system. Participants were not instructed to eat less or more food.

Researchers estimated the total number of deaths that could be averted or delayed via TLL by comparing average annual mortality rates associated with key non-communicable diseases to the 2004 survey data to see if the mortality predictions changed when the TLL system was used to adjust what participants ate.

They found that of 92,000 predicted annual deaths, almost 12,000 could be averted or delayed by avoiding foods with red traffic light labelling.

This supports previous research showing that food choices and good nutrition can have a huge impact on whether individuals are more susceptible to conditions correlated with obesity.

“The majority of potential lives saved would be related to cardiovascular diseases,” the study reads, adding that 72 per cent of the projected lives saved were due to avoiding heart disease.

Fifteen per cent of the mortalities avoided were connected to Type 2 diabetes, with 8 per cent connected to cancer and 3 per cent connected to liver disease.

“The present modelling study showed that if food products were to be labelled with TLL and consumers used it to avoid foods labelled with red lights whenever possible, then close to 13% of deaths from diet-related NCDs could be delayed or averted every year in Canada,” the study concludes.

In the study’s discussion, researchers express approval for a recent move by Health Canada to follow a nutrient-specific system of labelling, although it is not exactly the same as TLL. Health Canada has called for the mandatory application of front-of-package labelling that specifies when a product is “high in” things such as fats, sodium and sugars.

The study chose not to look at whether choosing products labelled with yellow or green traffic lights had any impact on the mortality rates due to the previous evidence that “when TLL is introduced, consumers use it most often to avoid products labelled with red traffic lights rather than increasing their selection of products with primarily green lights.”

Researchers say the 2004 survey was the most recent data on nutritional health across Canada available at the time. The survey however, did not include data from residents from the Yukon, Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, or Indigenous people living on reserves.