Under the new programme, a total of 2,600 people will be interviewed to examine which of the four potential schemes they find most useful in helping them to assess the nutritional content of food quickly and easily.
Many sectors of the food industry have introduced their own signposting schemes, but the Food Standards Agency(FSA) says it is concerned that the variety of labelling schemes could lead to confusion.
"Although we welcome action to help make healthier eating easier, we are concerned that different schemes may cause confusion," said FSA director of consumer choice and dietary health Gill Fine.
Number one UK retailer Tesco, for example, recently said it will label hundreds of its own label packs with the amount of salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories in a serving of each product in grams.
Thelabels will also state how much of the guideline daily amount (GDA) this makes up - so customers can get an idea of how this fits into their diet as a whole.
The British arm of Nestlé recently revamped its nutrition labels, printing guideline daily amounts (GDA) for calories and fat alongside per serving nutritional information across its whole UK product portfolio, including confectionery, breakfast cereals, coffee and pasta. In addition, products from companies like Kellogg's, Kraft, Unilever and Walkers carry GDA information rather than a traffic light system.
The food industry has wholeheartedly rejected the traffic light system (backed by the FSA), where foods are labelled with either red, amber or green depending on their nutritional value, deeming it as too simplistic, as well as concerned that a 'red' spot could totally denigrate a product in the consumer eyes.
"We want to know what works best for consumers and that's what this research is all about. The results will be used to develop a single, easy-to-understand scheme that could be the same wherever you shop," says the FSA.
The results of the research will be published later this year, and used to inform the development of guidance for manufacturers and retailers on how the final scheme will work.
The guidance will be put out for consultation with the intention that a signposting scheme will be ready to roll out in 2006.
The four possible concepts to be put to the consumer are as follows: a GDA-based concept with colour coding indicating the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar provided per serving, together with the GDA for each nutrient; accompanied by colours to indicate whether the content of each nutrient in the food is high, medium or low.
Secondly, a GDA-based concept monochrome: indicating the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar provided per serving, together with the GDA for each nutrient.
Thirdly, multiple traffic lights: with a separate high, medium or low rating (and corresponding red, amber or green colour coding) for each of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Finally, the simple traffic light that provides an overall (colour coded) rating for the food as a whole, with descriptive wording.
According to the FSA, the four concepts will be tested together alongside products without any signposting to act as a benchmark against which to assess the effectiveness of the concepts being tested.
In total, 2,600 interviews will be conducted, of which 100 will be conducted specifically with consumers "from ethnic minorities to ensure that their views are appropriately represented," says the FSA.
Each scheme will appear on life-sized photographed images of real products from the following categories - breakfast cereal/cereal bars, traditional ready meals, ethnic ready meals, meal components (for example, pizza/burgers) and treats (crisps/cake).