/ Food & Drink

Sugar-packed breakfast cereals: it’s time for traffic lights

Our latest report on unhealthy breakfast cereals raises questions about food standards after we leave the EU. Are you concerned?

Our new research looked at adult cereals – from crunchy nut cornflakes to granola. We applied traffic lights to 31 adult cereals to see which were high, medium or low in sugar, fat and salt and found 30% of them came out as red (or high). One had even more sugar than when we last looked in 2011.

This wouldn’t be so bad if you were warned of the high sugar content at the point of purchase – if the cereal clearly displayed a red label under the traffic light system. But disappointingly, some manufacturers are still refusing to apply the traffic light labelling scheme to their products.

As others do, we have a situation where products can sit side by side, often with the own brand showing the traffic lights and the branded equivalent failing to do so.

It’s encouraging that Nestle recently announced it would be using the scheme on its products – but still disappointing that other big brands, such as Kellogg’s don’t. Although we didn’t look at them this time, it’s even worse when they are often marketing these sugary cereals as for children.

Consistent labelling

This confusing situation has arisen because traffic light nutrition labelling on the front of pack is only voluntary. EU rules agreed in 2011, allowed EU Member states to adopt these types of schemes – but not make them a requirement. Which? has long campaigned for the scheme because our research has shown consumers find it useful.

The Department of Health published guidance on a common scheme in 2013 following a lot of consultation and most retailers (with the exception of Iceland) and some leading manufacturers have adopted the scheme. But other big players did not. It’s estimated that traffic lights are on around two-thirds of food products overall.

To make matters worse, some of these manufacturers are also trying to promote a rival scheme that would be more favourable to their products compared to the one advocated by the Department of Health and consumer and public interest groups.

A legal requirement

Traffic light nutrition labelling has always been a highly contentious issue among some EU countries – particularly where they produce traditional foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt. However, we think it is important that we maintain the same approach to food legislation and therefore food standards during and after our leaving the EU.

Legislation on food labelling has evolved in areas – such as control over health and nutrition claims – and works well. But this is one area where the government and devolved administrations – food labelling being devolved – should seize the opportunity to go further, ensuring that consumers can easily make informed choices across the board.

Going further

There’s also an opportunity to make sure that the criteria underpinning the scheme reflect current dietary recommendations. The sugar criteria, which despite so many cereals coming out as high in our study, are too generous.

In the meantime, it would be great if the food manufacturers who have so far refused to adopt our national scheme finally did the right thing and applied traffic lights.

Are you concerned about ‘hidden’ sugar in products which don’t carry traffic light labelling? Are you worried about food standards post-Brexit?

Patrick Taylor says:
20 June 2018

It seems to me that it will be far simpler for the UK to enforce labelling after leaving the EU as it will not be restricted by the current consensus requirement of the EU.

I would also suggest strongly that taxing on sugar content for basic cereals is probably an effective way to deter people who read labels, and also those that do not care to read labels, and are unlikely to change their eating preferences other than on cost grounds. Advertising foods at children on TV is also reprehensible.


I started a discussion in The Lobby after seeing today’s Which? press release. A couple of points:

Years ago I phoned Kelloggs to ask when they were going to introduce traffic light labelling on their products and I was led to believe that it would happen. I had a conversation with a chap who was remarkably knowledgeable about science and he sent me some vouchers for Kelloggs products. Unfortunately all the Kelloggs cereals I looked at had added sugar. I’m not one who sees sugar as a poison to be avoided at all costs but when products such as soup contain added sugar then it’s time to take action. I make my own soup and never think about adding sugar.

Here is an old article giving an insight into why cereal manufacturers saw red when expected to introduce traffic light labelling on their products: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/dec/28/marketingandpr.food

I hope that Kellogg’s claim that they don’t make cereal for anyone else is true because it means that I can be sure of avoiding their products. 🙂

Patrick Taylor says:
20 June 2018

Useful article and indicative of the long-term planning of the multi-nationals and devotion to corporate profit. Given the obesity epidemic amongst children perhaps portraying them as dangerous may not be too wide of the mark.


Agreed, but how do we make young people aware of how they are being manipulated by business?


Get their parents to tell them. They have responsibility for their children. They should also stop buying children’s cereals if they want to avoid the sugar problem; looking on the packet will tell them whether they are high in sugar, and putting some discipline into food buying would help. But given the appetite for people to buy sweets and fizzy drinks cereals are probably one of the lesser offenders.

A list of sugar content per portion is given here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/shopping-and-consumer-news/11373080/The-10-most-sugary-breakfast-cereals.html

One of the lowest is Weetabix (I buy the cheaper M&S version) on which I sprinkle a fair amount of sugar. But then I don’t take sugar in fizzy drinks, tea or coffee.

I wonder how many people actually pay attention to the traffic lights or the portion contents when buying food?


I take very little notice of traffic lights as I have to read the nutrition labels on everything to check carbs and sugars.

Diabetic diet-controlled hubby cannot eat wheat for breakfast even if it is low sugar.

His cereals are Oatibix 3.2% sugars, Rude Health Spelt Flakes 0.5%, Dove Farm Corn Flakes 0.7% and of course porridge oats at 1%.


Waitrose seem to have stopped producing their mixed beans in spicy tomato sauce, much, much nicer than baked beans.

I have just tried to order them from Ocado, but they are not there or on the Waitrose website.

At 2.8% sugars, they were the best on the market for a diet-controlled diabetic.

The really stupid thing is …. I have never been able to buy them in a Waitrose store, only from Ocado. I can only assume sales are too low to continue producing them. But why would a company produce the healthiest and nicest beans on the market and not stock it on their own shelves?

Please Waitrose, bring them back so my husband can eat the equivalent of baked beans again. You should be promoting healthier eating not removing healthier products from sale.

Patrick Taylor says:
20 June 2018

Que Choisir 2015

It is not easy to decipher the nutritional information on food packaging such as biscuits, cereals, ready meals, sauces and soups… A draft colour code could, if adopted, allow consumers to be informed in a simple way about the nutritional quality of products. We tested it on some 300 references. Surprises abound.

They have 12 breakfast cereals included in the 300 which is useful to those who care.

In 2017 the French made the traffic lights the only official system and added this
” 4. we strongly condemn all attempts to interfere with this initiative, in particular the position of large multinationals (Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, Mondelez and Unilever) which refuse to accept the Nutri-Score and call, especially in France via the Federation of grocery products and specialized nutrition Alliance 7, to use another system, based on a portion-based approach, much less clear for consumers and confusing ;
4. invite all citizens to sign the petition ” Yes to Nutri-Score on our food. Not the threats of interference from some industrial »

We support the extension of the use of the Nutri-Score at European level. Such a logo, which provides easily appropriate information on the nutritional quality of foods and allows everyone to make informed decisions on their diet, should be made compulsory in Europe.”

So what has been preventing the traffic lights overcoming the multi-nationals? Perhaps Which? could explore whether there has been a political/lobbying movement and which countries have been stalling.