/ Food & Drink, Health

How light is your lunch? You might be surprised…

How healthy is your sandwich? We’ve found the answer could depend on where you shop. We want to take your views to the government so it can encourage shops to be clearer about what’s in our food.

Whether your favourite sarnie is a BLT, a chicken salad or something completely different you may be able to get a healthier version of your preferred lunchtime snack if you shop around.

Research we released today found you could be eating three times as much fat and double the amount of salt as you’d have in the same sandwich bought elsewhere.

So how do you know what you’re eating? Well that’s just it – unless all the places where you buy your sandwiches use the same traffic light labelling scheme it could be very difficult to tell.

Double the fat for the same sandwich?

Although I’m a vegetarian, I was shocked to find out that Morrisons chicken salad sandwich contains almost double the amount of fat (11.7g) than the same sandwich from Waitrose (6.0g).

Waitrose uses traffic lights but Morrisons doesn’t, so how could you tell that the Morrisons sandwich is the less healthy option? It would take quite a bit of planning, calculating and note writing to work it out. As much as I always prefer to go for the healthy option, I just don’t have the spare time for that.

We’ve discussed the use of traffic light labels before on Which? Convo. Andy told us that:

‘I religiously now examine saturated fat and salt content but would love a traffic light system so I wouldnt waste time examining the labels of foods with big red blobs on them.’

Stevie B pointed out that colour-coded things would be easier for those who have problems reading the very small print:

‘The traffic light method is good for me, as reading small print is tough without glasses these days. Easy to read labels allows a more informed choice and the easier the better for me.’

Help us lobby for better labelling

image of traffic light labelling for food

At Which? we’d like to see clear, consistent labelling right on the front of food packaging.

Do you think a system of traffic lights, like the one on the left, would help you make healthier choices?

The Department of Health wants to know – it released a consultation on Monday to help decide on the best scheme. We’ll be responding and would like to include your views as well – it’s important that consumers have their say on food labelling.

  • Would a traffic light scheme that was the same across all packaging help you make healthier choices?
  • What products would you like to see traffic lights on?
  • Would you find it useful to see ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ on the traffic lights as well as the colours?

We’ll be talking to the Department of Health so that it can take your feedback on board. Together we can help the government work out how food labelling can work best for those buying the sandwiches.


Please help us get rid of mayonnaise from sandwiches, Rachel. Some do want this slimy, ghastly grease but others hate it with a passion. Mayonnaise and coleslaw (mayo plus cabbage) contribute to the fat content of many sandwiches.

John Symons says:
17 May 2012

Buy your sandwiches from Sainsburys and you always know where you are. Mayo free ones are clearly marked No Mayo. I wish, though, that they would not assume that certain fillings only go with wholemeal bread, others only with oatmeal bread and still others only with white bread. More choice, please. That reminds me, what about a percentage of fibre on food labels? Different people’s systems react to fibre in different ways

David says:
17 May 2012

Yes, please help us get rid of mayonnaise from sandwiches. Apart from the obvious potential for high fat content, I’m allergic to egg, and as such at times it can be very difficult for me even finding a sandwich I can eat.

I f you have a serious egg allergy I suggest you make your own sandwiches. So many sandwiches do contain mayonnaise that contamination is likely, even if egg is not listed on the packaging.

I also have a mild allergy to eggs, and cannot abide mayonnaise. There must be many other types of filling that could be used as an alternative. I understand that historically, goose/duck fat would be mixed with lemon juice and parsley to be used as a filling. Most of the people who have arrived on these shores throughout history have left their mark on our cuisine. Perhaps as consumers we should lobby the supermarkets to use new recipes or old ones that are still popular with some people. Thw supermarkets could hold a competition for the best sandwich recipes.

I love mayo in sandwiches, although we’ve debated this before on Which? Convo and it seems like a lot of people hate having it: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/say-no-to-mayonnaise-sandwiches/

I think one of the benefits of having traffic light labels is that it will really show people what’s in their sandwiches. Although I like mayo, I’d rather have a low-fat option, and I suspect that if shops have to have really prominent red, amber and green lights on packaging they’ll start thinking more about what goes into the sandwiches – full fat mayo, salt, etc.

What do you guys think about labelling? Is there anything else that you think could benefit from having clearer fat/sugar/salt marked? I’d like to see more of it on ready meals (which I do eat quite a bit). OK, you can pick a ‘light’ option, but how light exactly *is* it? I’d really like to be told this.

David says:
17 May 2012

I am seriously allergic to egg and generally do make my own lunch. Life dictates this is not always practical however.

Back to the food labelling, I would like to see something akin to your example above (the traffic light system) showing percentage of GDA. This is clear and simple, and would give me a rough indication of how much of my daily allowance I am eating with that one product. I would be in favour of ALL foodstuffs containing such information.

I found out by accident recently that curry powder, of all ingredients, contains salt. The particular one I’ve been using (a well known herb and spice brand) doesn’t indicate how much. As a result I will start grinding my own, without salt.

Is it possible to look at the names/brand names these shops give their food as well. Often the names will imply a healthy option when inspection of the contents would indicate not.

e.g words like Lite , Healthy etc.

Good point, William – we do look at these sorts of claims as well. Here’s a Convo we wrote a few months ago on these ‘light’ claims: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/light-food-calorie-content-confusion/ You’re right – it is really important that the information given is clear, and doesn’t imply that something is healthy when it isn’t. Often the definition is relative e.g. one product might be a ‘light’ version of another, yet still be quite high in fat!

John Symons says:
17 May 2012

I was once amazed to see a packet of clearly factory baked biscuits in Denmark labelled as home made. False claims are even made in Scandinavia

VfM says:
17 May 2012

It’s generally more cost-effective and healthier to make your own sandwich, or take some fruit with you if you’re short of time in the mornings. If you have the time to queue for a sandwich, you’ve got time to buy some fruit!

There are huge threads on other sites regarding healthy lunch options. Surely Which? should be concentrating on helping consumers save money rather than the dietary aspects of lunch? Eg £2.50 not spent on a sandwich at work equates to a saving of at least £600 pa.

Aidan says:
17 May 2012

I’d also like a warning on the front with the traffic light system to highlight if there are any trans fats in the product.

John Symons says:
17 May 2012

Another issue with fats is that claims of high omega fat content should separate out omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 is important for brain function and our diets are generally too low in omega-3 as typically found in fish and too high in omega-6 as typically found in nuts. The same goes for omega oil supplement capsules

Paul says:
17 May 2012

I can’t agree more about the removal of mayonnaise from sandwiches. It is something I have felt very strongly about for some time. It seems that every sandwich these days has to be filled with it. I recently bought a Cheese and Tomato sandwich and found it full of mayonnaise!!! And why does “savoury” mean mixed with onions and mayonnaise.
I think it’s used by sandwich makers as a glue for their fillings.

Jim Winship says:
17 May 2012

I’m sorry to say your research is somewhat flawed as you can’t really make this sort of nutritional comparison as the types, quality and quantities of ingredients used can differ enormously between brands. For example, a small difference in the quanity of leaf in a BLT can substantially change the nutritional values.

You also attack Greggs, Pret a Manger etc for not labelling yet for them to do so could expose them to charges of misrepresentation as their sandwiches are hand-made and, therefore, may differ in nutritional values simply because an operative is more generous than another with the filling. There is no legal requirement for them to label for this reason although all those quoted do provide guidance nutritional information at point of purchase and on websites etc.

I am also confounded that you had to dig back to 1995 for the consumer attitudes you quoted – if you were to look at the consumer data for the current time I think you would find attitudes have changed a bit, particularly in the current economic climate.

What concerns me is that this piece of work seems to have been inspired by a desire to make headlines and sell more copies of Which? rather than anything else. This does nothing for the integrity of the Consumers Assocation.

I’m sure you will see this as a biased response given that I am Director of the British Sandwich Association but we would support you in encouraging clearer and better labelling. However, we feel it should be done based on more accurate information and by trying to find solutions to the obstacles that make it so difficult for foodservice outlets to give reliable information to consumers on these things.

I accept that it is difficult to give accurate nutritional information on hand-made products and I nearly made this comment myself. I do not see this as a reason for doing nothing. Perhaps ranges could be given to provide useful information while acknowledging the variation in composition. It would be fairly obvious, for example, that a sandwich containing 20-30% fat would not be a healthy choice.

The only reason that Which? is being critical is that action is needed to help the consumer and this has not been forthcoming.

It’s a good idea to standardise information, so that one can make comparisons. But is it really necessary that providing information should be compulsory? Providing such information is not cost-free, and not everyone is interested (any figures?). Why not leave it to the market to see if people prefer to buy labelled sandwiches? I see however that the EU has made this labelling compulsory. I despair! (Maybe they could sort out the Euro first?)

I find choosing lunch a massive chore as it is – these salty fatty sandwiches to not whet my appetite – but I do spend twice as long in my local Tescos than Sainsburys trying to work out the damn labels! The fact they use ‘random pastel colours’ does not help at all. I bought lunch from Tesco, the amount of salt was ‘orange’ so I thought, not too bad – but no! it had half my daily recc of 6g in it and should have been a red traffic light! The ‘orange’ colour was a RED herring!!!!

VfM says:
17 May 2012

If choosing lunch is such a chore, why not plan when you shop for groceries? Providing your own means your personal tastes are always accomodated.

IMO buying a pre-made sandwich is just a tax on the stupid, I really think Which? should not be wasting it’s resources on such non-issues when there are plenty of financial and consumer matters out there that require robust challenge.

Hi Vfm – I would love to have home made sandwiches every day, but unfortunately I just don’t have the time to make a packed lunch before I leave for work every morning. Buying sandwiches (even if it costs me more) seems like a very good trade-off for me, in having more time to do other things in the morning.

Regarding the Which? research – we research and campaign on a vast array of consumer issues – we aren’t simply a financial charity. We research to find out what it is consumers care about, and where we can make a real difference, and that helps to shape our campaigns. Our food campaign is all about giving consumers the right information about their food – unit pricing, traffic light labelling, etc. Over the years, Which? has campaigned on things from credit card surcharges to car seat safety, and at the moment we’re working on simpler energy tariffs, food traffic light labelling, a stronger financial services bill, and much more!

I appreciate that this particular campaign might not be one that you personally are interested in – you might be more interested in our finance campaigns (more detail here: http://www.which.co.uk/campaigns/personal-finance/).

Rica says:
17 May 2012

I think the traffic light idea is a very good one. Most people rush into a supermarket and grab a sandwich and a drink for their lunch and if the sandwich is going to be labelled I think it should be as simple as possible. Presumably, the drink should be labelled as well because i think most of them are very high in sugar.

Linloobyloo says:
17 May 2012

All our foods should be labelled with colour traffic light codes and especially take aways.

Philippa says:
17 May 2012

I find it hard as a vegetarian to find low fat sandwhiches; my stomach can’t tolerate mayo or cheese. Egg and salad without mayo would be fine, but I have only found that on the continent (though when I worked on a buffet at Heathrow in 1957 we made plain egg sandwiches then…)

It’s a great idea to have standardised information but people who are colour blind find some colours hard or impossible to identify and green is a no no.

Excellent point. Different colours could be shown in different shapes so that everyone can understand the information. Maybe you have a better suggestion.

I’m sure it’s not deliberate but you do need to keep reminding us of the needs of people who are colour blind. We have not even got to grip with the fact that some are left-handed.

Very good point, Linda! In fact that picture we first had on the convo just showed the colours but we would ideally like it to also be labelled ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’ so that people who are colour blind can also see the difference. We’ve managed to find an image that includes these so I’ve swapped the pictures over – if we’re going to add these labels then it’s well worth making sure that as many people can benefit from them as possible.

Dave Buckingham says:
18 May 2012

Excellent result ‘Which?’ I used to buy sandwiches from various retail outlets until I started to read the ‘ugly truth re the contents’ ! I have actually written to the retailers you mention that do not use the traffic light system and consistently use more than the recommended daily intakes of salt and fat. Would you believe it, not one of them responded even after a second letter. So, they have lost my business entirely, I don’t even use them for every day shopping now. I make my own sandwiches and have even got to like them !. Keep the good work up Which? team.

Very sensible, Dave. After looking at the British Sandwich Association’s website I have decided to stop being lazy and start making sandwiches, which I always did until a couple of years ago.