Friday, 10 August 2012

How Traffic Lights Help with Healthy Food Choices

What do you think if you see a red traffic light? Stop, danger? Whatever first springs to mind, it’s probably not ‘Go’. And this is why the Traffic Light food labelling system, developed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), can be such an effective tool in helping us make healthier food choices.

Although a number of major manufacturers and retailers have taken up this scheme, many others haven’t. Instead they use other criteria, which don’t apply to everyone and aren’t as easy to understand.

Obesity levels in the UK are at records highs. With the UK population typically exceeding the daily recommended guidelines for fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar, it’s vitally important that consumers can easily identify just how healthy (or not) their food is.

The Traffic Light System

The traffic Light labelling system, which can be found on the front of food packaging, uses red, amber or green colour coding (traffic lights) to indicate whether the levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are high, medium or low.
Example of a traffic-light label
This system is clear and easy to understand. There are no complicated percentages or portions sizes to work out, and importantly, it helps consumers make a quick and informed decision regarding how healthy that product is.

Many large food manufacturers, including Waitrose, the Co-op, Sainsbury's, McCain, Boots and Marks & Spencer are among those who have voluntarily chosen to use the traffic light scheme on their packaging.


The Sainsbury's traffic light symbol as shown below is displayed on a box of Wheat Biscuits. Sainsbury's use the traffic light system in a 'sliced pie' form, which clearly displays the colour coded 'traffic-lights' for the food overall, as well as the grams and calories per serving.
Sainsbury's Traffic Light symbol
This food has healthy levels of fat, saturated fat and sugar so they are coloured green, while salt gets an amber light, signifying a medium salt content. The numbers inside the pie slices show how much of each nutrient you will be consuming per serving, which is clearly shown underneath the pie chart.


Waitrose also use the traffic light system but in conjunction with the GDA system as described below. This label shows healthy levels of all four nutrients as well as the number of grams per servings. The GDA percentages are used on the right of the label.
Waitrose use Traffic Lights and GDA
BUT, there is an anomaly with this Waitrose traffic light. Although the traffic lights are all green, these only relate to the amounts per serving. In fact, this particular product, 'Waitrose Love life you count' Milk Chocolate Drink, has a high level of sugar per 100g and a medium saturated fat content. In this case the Traffic light should display Red, Green, Amber, Green.

The GDA System

The 'percentage guideline daily amounts' (GDA's) system is widely used by manufacturers. These symbols also appear on the front of packaging and provide information including calories, salt, fat and sugar per serving as well as the percentage of the recommended daily amount of that nutrient.

Casting a look over the packs adorning supermarket shelves right now, you're more likely to see a version of the GDA system as shown below. Companies currently using this scheme include major food manufacturers Tesco, Morrisons, Cadbury, Nestlé, Kellogg's and Kraft. Tesco also have their own colour scheme.
Tesco's GDA label with their own colour scheme
Problems with the GDA System

While the GDA labels provide helpful information, it’s not as readily understandable and straightforward as the traffic light system.

For example, where values are given per portion, the consumer has to be aware of the how much that portion is. Additionally, portion sizes often differ between similar products making it difficult to make a fair comparison.

Percentages of daily guideline amounts require the consumer to know what their daily guideline amount actually is. Some labels provide average recommended amounts. But percentages aren't the same for everyone. A 12 stone man for example, doesn’t have the same requirements as a 9 stone woman or a 4 stone child. 

GDA labels can be misleading. Take a look at the Kellogg’s All-Bran Bran Flakes label below. It shows a 30g serving has 6g of sugar. How do you know whether this is High, Medium or Low sugar?
Kellogg's Bran Flakes GDA Label
You can work out this information yourself by checking the nutrition label on the back of the pack. These Bran Flakes contain 20g of sugar per 100g which makes it high. However, you'd need to be aware that any food with 15g or more is high. Far simpler just to look at a red label!

More Confusion with Guidelines

Another common scenario likely to lead to confusion can be seen by the example shown below on a bottle of 7 Up. Clearly shown on the GDA label is the calorie content, amount of sugar, fat, saturates and salt as well as the percentage value (in the circle), of each nutrient. 

Taking a quick glance, many would automatically assume this drink has 103 calories and 26.5g of sugar.  It sounds like a lot of sugar, but is it high?
7 Up GDA label with nutrients for half the bottle (250ml)
Wait a minute! The eagle eyed among you may have noticed the text running vertically alongside the GDA label. Here it reads 'Each 250ml serving contains'. And check out the bottle size at the bottom left of the picture. It's 500ml. So, if you're drinking the whole bottle, you'll have to double all those figures.

Then there's the 'Per 100ml' information on the nutrition label. Here are yet more values, this time showing 41 calories and 10.6g of sugar. Since most nutrients are nil, there aren't that many calculations to do. But for the calories and sugar,there are three different value to contend with.

On a bottle such as this size which is typically drunk in one go, it would be clearer if the information was provided for the entire bottle, rather than half.

7 Up Nutrition label with nutrient values per 100ml
This 500ml bottle of 7 Up actually contains 206 calories and 53g of sugar (over 12 and a half teaspoons and just under 60% of the GDA). And this is similar for many popular fizzy drinks.

Statement from the FPA:
  • The front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ scheme is best for consumers.
  • The government should push hard for it to be universally adopted.
  • Strong representations should be made to the European authorities to support the scheme.
The Food Standards Agency (FDA) uses Citizens’ forums to make independent evaluations on Front of Pack ‘FOP’ labelling. 

Key findings for FOP labelling included the following:

participants felt that the Government should introduce a standardised approach to FOP labelling and provision of information relating to portion sizes, and that a label should include traffic light colours, percentage of GDA and nutrient amounts in grams, as well as high, medium and low text.'

Even if a particular product doesn’t have the traffic light system, you can find out whether it is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar by looking at the nutrition label under the ‘per 100g’ section. To work out whether the nutrients are high, medium or low, you'll need to know what those levels are.

Take a look at 'Using Nutrition Labels to Make Healthy Choices'. Here you'll find an easy to understand table which show you the high, medium and low levels of sugar, fat,saturates and salt.

When making food choices using the traffic light system, ideally choose foods with mainly green or amber lights and save those with the red lights to be eaten on an occasional basis or in much smaller amounts.

Personal note:

I’m one of those consumers who prefers the simplicity of the traffic light system. However, I also want to know how many calories, how much saturated fat and salt my food has, so including both systems on packaging would be ideal.

I've been highlighting the fat, sat. fat, sugar and salt content in green, orange or red on my posts but will be gradually replacing these with my own traffic light graphic.

Related articles: 
What are Serving Sizes and Portion Sizes - Read Post
Using Nutrition Labels to Make Healthy Food Choices - Read Post

Sources and further reading:
Faculty of Public Health

© Diets and Calories 2012


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