/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Tesco gives green light to traffic light labels – who’s next?

Cheers, gasps of delight, and cries of ‘I can’t believe it!’ rung out across Which? HQ yesterday, as Tesco – the biggest supermarket in the UK – announced that it would be adding traffic light labelling to its food.

Which? has been campaigning on traffic light labelling for years – since long before I joined the team, and probably before I’d even heard of it. The news that Tesco is now going to add traffic light labelling to its food is a real win for consumers across the UK.

Over the last few years some supermarket chains and food manufacturers have agreed that yes, having ‘red, amber, green’ colours on food can help us make more informed choices about what we’re eating. Red, coupled with the word ‘high’ next to the salt content, for instance, can tell someone that this ready meal might be delicious but should probably not be combined with anything else too salty.

Some companies – Asda, The Co-op, M&S and Waitrose – have gone one step further and also included the percentage of your guideline daily amount, so you know exactly how much salt, fat and sugar you can have in a day.

Tesco’s announcement means it’s now in line with these others – displaying traffic lights and guideline daily amounts (GDA). Although Sainsbury’s doesn’t give customers the percentage of GDA, it was one of the first supermarkets to add traffic light colours to food packaging.

Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons – why not join the party?

But we’re not quite there yet – there are still some supermarkets and food manufacturers that aren’t offering this information. As Tesco admitted this week – consumer research shows that customers want to know, at a glance, the levels of salt, sugar and fat in the food they’re buying. So we’d like to see the other supermarkets follow in the footsteps of these other chains.

In an ideal world all supermarkets would follow the recommendations of the Food Standards Agency and display three things – traffic light colours, GDAs and text saying ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ (for those who might be unable to distinguish between the colours).

But, for now, we’d love to see everyone getting on board with the colours – one of the simplest changes to make and so effective in improving consumer information.

Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons all display the GDA but don’t put traffic light labelling on their packaging. We’re asking them to rethink and add clear colours on food packaging to let people know whether the salt, sugar or fat content is high, medium or low.

This is really important, especially because most people don’t have the time (and many don’t have the 20/20 eyesight) to scrutinise the small print on every packet. Nice clear traffic light colours make things so much easier. And, as Tesco has shown this week, even the biggest supermarkets can make the change.


Every Little Helps. 🙂


Morrisons certainly need to do something about the labelling of some of their ‘in-store’ products such as sandwiches, salads and baked goods. Not only don’t you get traffic light colours, you will also be hard pushed to get any details regarding the ingredients and the amount of fats and sugars in some of their in-store products (e.g. one cherry pie was more sugar and pastry than cherry filing – with absolutely no indication of the proportion of ingredients or other nutritional information). Aldi and Lidl are better in some respects – but all stores should display nutritional information whenever possible (baked items especially since most are simply brought in pre formed and frozen and are then baked on the day) – and it’s always suspicious when then don’t.


Sainsburys has been doing so for years – easy to understand – easy to see.

msatin says:
28 August 2012

UK retailers using traffic lights! Perhaps they should learn to drive on the right side first! That means having the courage to explain to consumers that no single food, regardless of traffic light score, is consumed in isolation, but part of a balanced diet. The traffic light system is driving our understanding of food and food culture away – not that the UK ever had much of one in the first place. So now we witness the UK move from canned bland vegetables to products which can be unbelievably easily maniputated with a cocktail of isolated ingredients (protein isolates, modified starches, etc.) to get a top traffic label. It’s good value! Countries with a real food culture and understanding don’t require traffic labels.


Don’t get too excited about Tesco’s traffic lights, on two different party packs which both had traffic lights on, one pack had the disclaimer per half pack, the other one per quarter pack so they’re still trying to con the customer. So they need to standardise on having the traffic lights apply to the whole pack, would I really have bought something which had 60% of my daily salt intake I think not. Who’d have thought mushrooms were that bad. Sigh

msatin says:
29 August 2012

It’s really quite unbelievable that consumers believe this is a benefit! All it is, really, is an invitation to manipulate the food to satisfy the traffic light label, not the consumer. Consumers, bureaucrats and in particular, consumer advocates have to understand that food industry technicians can do just about anything they want to manipulate foods with the arsenal of synthetic, approved ingredients that are available. Believe me, I’ve been there. You want more protein, easy. You want to cut salt, easy – there are many synthetic chemicals to replace it. You don’t want saturated fat – easy, try trans fats. Oh you don’t want trans fats – no problem – we’ll manipulate the fat some other way. In fact, consumer advocacy has in reality been the greatest possible boon to the food industry because they don’t really have to develop new foods or to satisfy and excite the consumer – all they have to do is get their marching orders from the consumer advocates and make the minor adjustments to satisfy them and then claim to be upright citizens working in the consumer’s interests. Thus, the close relationship between the producer and consumer is broken and replaced by the relationship of the producer to the consumer advocates. Both are happy and, in reality, the consumer becomes irrelevant. But, what the heck, as they say in the UK, it’s good value!


Synthetic chemicals to replace salt?
Trans-fats to replace saturated fats?

Please enlighten us with more details.

msatin says:
30 August 2012

Here are some salt enhancers: 5-ribonucleotides, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, inosine-5-monophosphate, 5′-guanidylic acid, glycine monoethyl ester, L-lysine, L-arginine, Lactates, mycosent, trehalose, L-ornithine, ornithyl-β-alanine, monosodium glutamate, alapyridaine (N-(1-Carboxethyl)-6-hydroxymethyl-pyridinium-3-ol).
Here are some salt replacers: potassium chloride (potash), calcium chloride, magnesium sulphate (epsom salts), various metal ion replacers

One bitterness inhibitors used in salt replacement is 2,4-dihydroxybenzoic acid – there are others.

Because of the criticism of solid saturated fats in foods in the ‘70s by consumer advocates, principally the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the US, liquid vegetable oils were partially hydrogenated to form solid margarines and shortenings. In the hydrogenation process, trans isomers of fatty acids were formed. These recently came under fire and will be replaced by oils manipulated in a different manner.