/ 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?


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. 🙂

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.

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.

Which? research back in 2006 found that traffic light nutrition labelling worked best for people. Despite government support and take up by most supermarkets, there has always been a lot of lobbying against the scheme. we assume that this is because it makes the sugar, fat and salt levels so clear.

When the EU updated nutrition labelling legislation in 2011 (the food information to consumers regulations), we had hoped that traffic lights could be made a mandatory requirement. Other consumer organisations across Europe supported them too. But there was a lot of lobbying against them, which consumer organisations could not compete with, and so in the end, the legislation was drafted to say that could only be used voluntarily. Member States are allowed additional forms of voluntary expression beyond the minimum nutrition labelling requirements.

The UK scheme, now in use, was developed as a result. Some food manufacturers continue to resist using it – as you have pointed out, have developed a rival scheme that has more relaxed criteria, so that some products that would get a ‘red’ (for having high levels) under the UK scheme wouldn’t under their scheme.

Some countries have also lobbied against the scheme, where some of their traditional products (or products produced by their major food companies) would come out as high in fat, sugar or salt under the scheme. The Italian Government for example complained to the European Commission that it was an illegal barrier to trade. The UK defended the scheme against this challenge, but Brexit superceded that in any case.

The Childhood Obesity Plan (Chapter 2) that came out over the weekend states that the Government will look at labelling again, in the context of Brexit – so let’s hope that this leads to a scheme that is used across the board.

I think we will need some positive action, Alex. Otherwise it may not be long before the supermarkets drop traffic light labelling.

I hadn’t realised there was a plan for childhood obesity; I assumed it was best avoided. I would support a childhood obesity prevention and reduction plan.

Parents can help prevent childhood obesity.

That’s right, Malcolm, but some of them are grossly overweight themselves; they need help.

I find it extremely hard to be non-judgmental on this issue so this could turn into a rant.. There are toddlers [waddlers] clearly heading for obesity which will ruin their lives but they are allowed to graze on unsuitable products throughout the day. Oversized parents go into high street bakery shops and come out with jumbo sausage rolls for all their kids; they don’t need them and are not working off the calories plus the ingredients are not healthy [and to compound it they lick the extraneous fat off their fingers]. Some of these people are obviously not well-off but waste their limited money on the worst, but not the cheapest, food.

I have noticed that many breakfast foods now have a chocolate-coated option. They are aimed at children who become addicted to them and won’t eat a simple Shredded Wheat. Pound shops sell biscuits in small but affordable pack sizes that can be consumed in one session. People who should are not buying fresh fruit, salads, and vegetables; sales remain strong because better-informed people are buying more. Oranges are awkward so have some Jaffa cakes instead. Crisp packets as big as a coal sack fly off the shelves – two or three in the trolley sometimes plus something else to eat on the way to the checkout. Where has it all gone wrong? Austerity isn’t working, children are sitting around all day, parents haven’t got a clue and will not heed advice, the shops and manufacturers are not helping, free school meals means there is more money left for unhealthy food. Can we educate those who won’t listen? It is difficult when many people have a whole range of other problems to cope with.

I must read up on the latest Childhood Obesity Plan – I can’t find the version that Alex says was released over the weekend [presumably 28:06:18]. Could we have a link please?

It might be here, John.
https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2018/06/second-government-childhood-obesity-plan?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIyKXjp6iA3AIVb5PtCh3A2AppEAAYASAAEgJYTfD_BwE which concludes;
“….the government has ignored the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s view that a new cross-government committee is required to co-ordinate and hold to account government departments for their contributions to tackling childhood obesity”

I see nothing in this that will have any real impact – but I hope I am wrong. Unless parents are receptive to advice about keeping their children healthy – in the obesity sense – then I see little progress; they will just carry on in their own sweet way. I suppose you could include obesity (not caused by a clinical condition) as mistreatment of offspring and bring the full force of the social care system to bear and penalise the parents for neglect; however we don’t have adequate social care.

You would think that parents of grossly overweight children created by incorrect feeding would feel some sort of responsibility as they must realise this is damaging to their childrens’ long term health.

I am much obliged, Malcolm. I shall give it serious consideration.

The government seems to come up with a new plan every year and I have every respect for the King’s Fund’s view if they say it isn’t working and doesn’t go far enough.

One problem with traffic light food labelling is that the portion size can be reduced to make the product look better. Some manufacturers their figures on a 30g portion. That is not very much and to put it in perspective, one Weetabix is about 21g.

I believe the traffic lights would be more useful if the system was based on a percentage content of sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat, so that we can all see which foods are best eaten in smaller quantities. I believe that this was the original intention for traffic light food labelling in the UK.

You have highlighted the problem I have with the traffic light system, there is no consistency. Portions are meaningless as the amount you have could depend on what else is on your plate.

I might take notice of the traffic light system if all figures were based on 100g.

Where do you get 21g from wavechange?
The traffic lights on the front of a Weetabix box show sugars as 1.7g, 2% for a 2 biscuit serving.
But when you look at the nutritional info sugars are 4.4g per 100g.

For a diet-controlled diabetic, we aim to have less than 4% sugars as well as looking at the overall carbs, so 4.4% is a little too high. But depending on what sort of milk you add, that figure could go up or down. Adding a sprinkle of sugar will take the figure up much higher.

All these figures can be confusing and very misleading. The 2% is actually the percentage of an adult’s Reference Intake. Does anyone take notice of that or is it there to fool you into thinking you are consuming less sugar than you actually are?

That is why I take no notice of the traffic light system in its present form.

I weighed a couple of Weetabix and both were 21g to the nearest gram. I will do some further investigating at the weekend. I do look at the exact details of nutritional information, largely because I’m interested in how the food industry does its best to make food look more healthy than it is. Have a look at soups and they often contain the maximum salt that can be added without this being obvious from the traffic light labels.

I suppose I’m lucky that food tastes sweet to me. If someone turns up for a coffee it can be a challenge to find any sugar without emptying the cupboard with baking ingredients.

Ah, I didn’t think of the actual weight of the Weetabix wavechange as I was thinking sugars.

Thinking about the 2% mentioned for a portion, I presume that is 2% of the maximum sugars a person can eat in a day. That seems like an awful lot of sugar to me.

If you were to eat 3 portions of Weetabix with milk in a day, that would be about 12% of the allowable daily intake of sugar? For people who use the traffic light system, would they then think it was okay to eat the other 88%?

I don’t generally buy Weetabix but Morrisons had an offer on packs of 72 of the things. There is no weight shown on the box which is naughty but probably not illegal. McVities do this with their Jaffa Cakes on the basis that the weight can vary. Of course, but I though that this is why we sell products by weight. 🙁

I am provided with the information that the energy content of two biscuits is 574kJ and that the typical energy value per 100g is 1531kJ. By my arithmetic, two biscuits weigh 35.94g, making each one slightly less than 18g, so having ones weighing 21g is generous. Perhaps Weetabix Limited should offer a calculator to those who collect packet tops so that we can all calculate the weight of a Weetabix.

Yes, most of us eat a lot of sugar.

I buy M&S “Wholegrain Wheat Bisks” (other brands are available). They are marked 480g, and, less prominently, 24 biscuits. 20g each – 10% more than yours. (The energy declarations also tell me each biscuit, by calculation, weights 20.0g.)

However, I must confess to never having bothered to look at them in this detail, and by the time I have sprinkled them in sugar and poured on the milk, of little value. I simply enjoy them occasionally for breakfast. Today they will be accompanied by strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.

I have done some investigation and the average weight Weetabix in a packet of 72 is 19.75g. At a price of £4 for 72 the average cost per Weetabix is about 5.6p. I had a couple of them (around 11p) with 160g of nectarine and berries costing 25p from Marks & Spencer, reduced from £2.50.

Which? responds to Scottish Government plan to crackdown on junk food promotion”

Just how do they propose to do this? To really crackdown on obesity effectively they might remove from all food retailers’ shelves all sweets, fizzy drinks, biscuits, cake, red and amber foods, chips, ice cream, pickles, sauces, jams, alcohol, and leave bread, salads, vegetables, meat eggs cheese and fish.

They might also close down all unhealthy fast-food outlets and restaurants that serve “unhealthy” food or “unhealthy” portions.

They could also ban vending machines that dispense chocolate bars, fizzy drinks and crisps.

I can only buy two packs of paracetamol at a time to prevent potential harm. Perhaps supermarket checkouts could be equipped with devices that total up the quantities of “bad” things in the food you buy, and stop purchases when a limit is reached? 🙁 Or perhaps “bad” foods could be hidden behind screens and only available on request, as we do with tobacco. 🙁 🙁

Or perhaps for those who want help we could institute a programme of education, and with the cooperation of retailers put the more harmful – in terms of unwanted obesity – foods in appropriately marked sections. For those people who do not want to know, who are happy to become overweight or, perhaps more importantly, for the many who simply have the right to follow their own lifestyle and, like me, can eat anything without apparent harm or significant weight gain, leave the informed choice to them. 🙂

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Hey all, just to make you aware that I have removed a number of comments. One comment has been removed for being inappropriate. Please do not post comments which others will find rude or offensive. The comment initially removed was reported by a number of community members.

There were a number of other comments removed. This is because they were in direct reply to the initially removed comment and are now out of context and no longer make sense. Thank you 🙂

Good points, Malcolm. I like the idea of an Obesity Aisle [extra-wide of course] or perhaps there should be a separate Fatness Room with all the amber and red light products available and a weighbridge-style checkout which speaks the weight of the customer before and the projected weight after consumption of the selected foodstuffs.