/ 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.

I would not worry too much. Some of these chemicals are present in natural food and no-one worries about that. It is well established that most of us are consuming too much salt, so there is a very good reason to replace it. If you are going to copy/paste information, it would be useful to quote the source.

The information about trans-fats is out of date because they have been removed from foods, at least by the large manufacturers supplying the UK. Small amounts of trans-fats are not a problem, but I suppose it is not convenient to mention this.

We are made of chemicals, our food is made of chemicals. Any chemicals added to manufactured foods have to be listed, so the consumer has the choice of whether to buy that food. Anything added to food is not necessarily bad, and may be a chemical present in natural food anyway.

I share your concern about the way that food manufacturers mess around with our food, but a lot of the research is done by respected organisations, including the Leatherhead Food Research. I am concerned about websites that attempt to scare the public by presenting information without any attempt to put it in perspective. Please don’t believe everything you read.

msatin says:
30 August 2012

Wavechange, the source on my “copy/paste information” as you call it, on salt replacers is my own address to the Institute of Medicine for their “Strategies to Reduce Sodium Committee Meeting in Washington on March 30, 2009. You will also find it in a publication on technologies shaping the future that I co-authored with Colin Dennis, former Director of Leatherhead. Please spare me the “we are made of chemicals” argument – it says nothing about this issue. I can guarantee you that the British public are consuming more products that are the direct result of my research efforts than of any other single individual you know and will be happy to enumerate them along with the ‘source references’ if you will start with someone you know. The traffic light system is not designed to inform consumers – it is designed to drive them towards a particular choice, regardless of their personal needs. A green light is supposed to be good and a red light bad – total nonsense. You cannot legitimately take a single food out of the context of a diet in a lifestyle. There are far better ways to inform the public, particularly if you give them an iota of credit for any intelligence. By the way, the preponderance of peer-reviewed clinical evidence does NOT state we are eating too much salt. What you hear from your public health officials and salt reduction advocates does not reflect the scientific literature. Most people thing we eat more salt now than in the past. In fact, the available evidence states that since the 1950s (the beginning of the growth of refrigeration), we have been eating less than anytime during the last 200 years. Myth-information helps no one. You’re correct on one point – don’t believe everything you read.


How am I supposed to know that you have copied information that you have authored? Whatever your background, I believe that what you have posted could cause unnecessary concern to those using Which? Conversation.

Regarding salt, your own website states that salt does cause hypertension in some individuals. It is not helpful, therefore, to say that the majority of studies do not indicate a problem. As a retired chemist/biochemist, I am very happy with the government’s advice to cut down on salt intake.

I disagree with you about the value of the traffic light labels. Obviously it is the total dietary intake that is important, but it can help us to avoid eating multiple foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt content in a day.

msatin says:
31 August 2012

I hate to prolong this conversation, but a few clarifications are required. First of all, I’m glad Wavechange has seen our website. My username ‘msatin’ is purposely transparent, rather than cryptic, because I would like all readers to see the peer-reviewed scientific work I continuously refer to. An informed consumer is the most powerful force to improve the food industry. With reference to salt and hypertension that Wavechange mentioned, let’s not take things out of context. The cross-population response to salt is not uniform, it is heterogeneous. With major reductions in salt (more than half of our current consumption), about 30 percent of the population will experience a slight drop (2-6 mm) in systolic BP, while about 20 percent will see a similar INCREASE in BP, and the remaining 50 percent of the population will show no effect at all. [See: Miller JZ, et al. Heterogeneity of blood pressure response to dietary sodium restriction in normotensive adults. J Chron Dis. 1987:40(3):245-250.] Considering the relatively small impact of major salt reduction on blood pressure, it is unfortunate that consumers are not aware of all the other negative consequences that occur as a result of dietary salt reduction. For those readers interested in the subject, please see the fully referenced article, http://bit.ly/ONyJLp . My beef with the traffic light system is that it takes individual foods out of the context of the whole diet. In addition, the nutritional data is patently wrong. It is all derived from the old Atwater tables that do not take the dynamics of digestion into account. As a chemist/biochemist, Wavechange will immediately understand this, but for other readers, let me put it in a simpler way – whatever you don’t digest has to be eliminated from the label’s figures to be correct. Has anyone ever wondered why peanuts, with all those calories, don’t make people fat? It’s because they have low digestibility. Some products like celery and cabbage have negative calories because the fiber they contain not only reduces their own digestibility, but also accelerates the movement of whatever else you have consumed with it through the digestive system and reduces overall bioavailability. Complicated, yes! True, yes! Reflected on the label, no! Any relationship to the traffic light, NO! Is the consumer better informed? No. Are we better off? That’s your decision, but hopefully you make it on the basis of information rather than myth-information.

Your username did indeed make it easy for me to identify you and to establish that your views could possibly be influenced by your association with the Salt Institute. The same would apply if you had a connection with an anti-salt pressure group, so it is definitely not a personal criticism. In a letter to New Scientist, you have criticised others for not declaring conflict of interest. 🙂

Official advice on nutrition does need to be reviewed periodically and updated on the basis of independent critical evaluation of the available high quality literature. I claim no expertise, but I believe that there are several higher priorities than reviewing salt intake.

One of the consequences of differences between individuals (metabolic/physiological, physical activity, etc) is that it is difficult to give good general advice. If the traffic light labelling does not suit you, then just ignore it or push for something better.

msatin says:
31 August 2012

Thanks Wavechange. I did not think that this was a venue where one normally expressed potential conflicts of interest but nevertheless make it clear who I happen to be. I’m long retired and now spend my time with the Salt Institute because I have this lifelong need to be a hero – that’s my real conflict of interest. The salt-health debate is the biggest fraud in recent public health history, and the media, which should be doing their job a little more seriously, are doing nothing about it – so I am – but I only joined the Salt Institute a few years ago. My need to be a hero goes way back. I was the individual who pioneered the first natural high fiber breads and improved fiber products in North America. My publication in Cereal Foods World in 1977 was the first to show the dynamics of fiber in the digestive tract and also demonstrated the effect of fiber particle size on fecal density and transit times. Not only were my improved nutritional products successful in Canada and the US but Ranks used the formulation to make their Windmill Hi-Fiber White Bread products – the first in the UK. At the same time, I was the individual to introduce supplementation of bread with folic acid and biotin in 1977, a monumental initiative that was carried out more than 20 years before it became mandatory in North America and is now done in the UK. This spearheaded one of the most significant nutritional interventions of the century – an intervention which has since been credited for sparing millions of children neural tube defects. That’s what comes from the desire to be a hero. I also developed and authored the first non-linear programming systems to design improved formulations for high protein products based on specific essential amino acid targets. In 1985, I gave up my position and ¾ of my salary as president of one of Canada’s largest milling industries to become Director of the Global Program for Food and Agro-Industries at FAO in Rome. In that position, I directed a Division of 75 professional and support staff with a $600+ million annual budget to develop food industries throughout the developing world. While there, on my weekend time in my kitchen, I developed the technology to make bread without wheat to promote the greater use of indigenous crops such as cassava, yam, sorghum, maize and sago in developing countries. This work was highlighted in the April 28, 1988 edition of New Scientist. The formulations I developed for making bread without wheat have since become the most widespread methodology used in the worldwide production of gluten-free baked goods for individuals with celiac disease and those seeking gluten-free foods. This work not only resulted in the greater use of indigenous crops in commercial bread products in developing countries, but also promoted the improved processing of traditional products and renewed their market acceptability. You can still see this on the FAO website if you Google my name and bammy bread. These efforts received written accolades from the late Mother Theresa as well as the World Council of Ministers of Agriculture. In 1995, while at FAO, I was approached by a delegation of tropical countries who sought my help with ongoing coconut crisis. Ever since the importation of coconut oil was avoided by Western countries because of health concerns, the bottom had dropped out of the coconut market, as the oil was the most profitable item in the limited product mix. After analyzing the problem, I decided that the product mix had to be expanded and developed the technology to make commercially shelf-stable coconut water using a microfiltration process, because the product was so heat labile. I went to those countries personally, supervised the work and patented the process. I transferred the patent to FAO on the condition that it would be made freely available to use by all – which is now the case. This was the first and only patent held by the United Nations system. Shelf-stable coconut water has now become a very popular product all over the world and has totally renewed the tropical coconut industry. It has significantly contributed to the economy of developing countries and has found use as an enjoyable beverage, a sports drink and an important resource to fight infant diarrhea in developing countries. So, asides from all my other conflicts of interest, I obviously suffer from two character flaws – one is the need to be a hero and the second is my all-consuming modesty.

Thanks for a very interesting post. I will do some reading. I had already looked at a couple of your papers. One of the unexpected benefits of being a retired UK academic is that I have retained access privileges for electronic journals. I would love to continue the discussion but it would probably be regarded as off-topic by Nikki and Patrick.

On this site we regularly have people posting copied information that they don’t begin to understand. I’m very sorry for wrongly assuming that you were one of them. Cheers.

msatin says:
31 August 2012

One last post, and apologies to Nikki and Patrick. Wavechange, I’m sure you will appreciate this. The 24-hour news cycle has spawned a culture of “breaking news” tidbits that never really informs. Cures for cancer, miracle ingredients that will make you sveldt in 24 hours, exotic teas that will allow you to live forever – all never to be heard from again. Reporters are given 30 seconds to convey a story. We are in the ‘Information Age’ and consumers have ready access to more data than ever before – yet they are more confused than ever because someone forgot to inject the word ‘reliable’ before the word information. Years ago, I was very upset with a book on food irradiation that was written by Tim Lang, who has some notoriety in your country. When I spoke to him, I could immediately see that he was a crusader who wanted to help consumers. But his book was full of innuendo and untruths. He felt that ‘the ends justified the means’ – you can deceive as long as you achieve your higher goals of ‘helping’ people. But it doesn’t work that way. It is the reason I published my first book and coined the term myth-information. I’ve done six more books since then. When I was asked to join the Salt Institute, I agreed on condition that my only role would be to get the peer-reviewed information out – all of it – you can’t hide any evidence. I really don’t care a whit about how much salt people eat and have openly said so on every occasion I had a chance. That’s one of the pleasures of being an old geezer – you can say what you want. What I do care about is that their decisions are based on the preponderance of scientific evidence – and I have never seen an issue quite as skewed as the salt and health issue. In the past three years, far more Cochrane reviews have cautioned against salt reduction than have supported it. I have always tried to figure out why so many well-known personalities in this issue have been so subjective in interpreting and cherry-picking data – what are they on about – why are people spinning the evidence? Whatever is – is. Perhaps it is the ‘ends justify the means’ syndrome, I really don’t know. Wavechange, in the end, all the rhetoric in the world means little – nothing trumps the evidence if the work was honestly done. Best to you!

Can we lobby for the supermarkets to follow the same colours as the real traffic lights. I am one of the millions of green red colour blind people in this country – no problem on the roads but I cannot distinguish between the three colours the food people use. Can lead to some “selective” decisions!

While you’re at it, can you get them to remove kilojoules from their packets. Noone knows what these are and they can only further confuse people trying to regulate their calorie intake.

I prefer kilojoules because I can have four times as many compared with calories. 🙂

Anyway, I thought we were supposed to become fully metric.

I know what kilojoules are and so does everyone who as done school science, providing they were listening and not playing with their mobile.

Please don’t use red and green. Those colours are the worst for accessibility.

What a fascinating discussion between msatin and wavechange. I understood some of it, but I’m a scientist of sorts. I’m sure you both realise that many, if not most of the people shopping in our supermarkets will not be able, or have the time, to understand all the labels and certainly will not understand all your discussion points. The traffic light system will give some guidance to more healthy foods and if the producers start manipulating their products to fit the requirement we will all rely on experts like them to alert us to it.

msatin says:
25 October 2012

Hi Wincey,

The problem with the traffic light system is that even if the data were correct, it takes a food out of the whole diet context. The old argument used to be if you eat bread and milk together, it would be far more nutritious than eating them alone because the essential amino acid profiles of each products complements the other. This could never be reflected in a traffic light system. There is little wrong with salad dressing once it’s applied to a green salad, but on its own may not come out well in a traffic light label. What is worse is that it encourages manufacturers to formulate for the label rather than the consumer – if all the salad dressings were bland and fat free, far less salad would be consumed – and that is not good. Understanding food is not rocket science – and consumers don’t need an obtuse bureaucratic system, totally removed from the consumers’ individual requirements to guide them. More importantly, the labels do not guide consumers to the greatest problem in public health – the lack of physical activity to balance off food intake. Michael Phelps, an Olympic champion and a native of nearby Baltimore consumes 12,000 calories a day while in training – and looks skinny as a rake – a terrific example of balance. Most of us consume between 2300 – 3200 calories a day, but do not work it all off. Adequate physical activity would pull the rug out from under the feet of every food activist around the world, yet we pay it scant attention because it focuses on personal responsibility – there’s no one else to blame but the individual. Pointing the finger at food is easy because the implicit fall guy is the food industry. It’s a pity, because the health issues are real – too bad we are focusing on peripheral solutions.


Ensuring that people consume sufficient proteins and oils/fats is important in countries with food shortages and in hospitals/care homes where ill/elderly people have to be encouraged to eat properly. For most of us, the priority is to avoid eating a diet that is well in excess of what we need and that is not helped by the fact that most of us take little exercise. It is obviously useful for us all to have an overview of what we are eating but I believe that a consistent way of labelling food will be of considerable benefit. Vegans obviously do need to understand the significance of the fact that cereal proteins are deficient in lysine and methionine compared with animal proteins.

I don’t see that the lack of salad dressing need put people off eating salad. It is a matter of what you become accustomed to, like sugar in tea/coffee or adding salt to food. Many of us have developed the habit of eating between meals and that is very easy to do if you are at home all day.

With unprocessed food, it is fairly easy to see which foods contain a lot of fat, though the high fat content of coconut could come as a surprise. Processed foods often contain a lot more fat than is obvious, so labelling is very useful.

I agree that the digestibility of food should be taken into account when calculating nutritional value of foods. I don’t know what school kids learn about nutrition but there is so much daft advice about diets that good information should come first.

Andy says:
25 October 2012

The key indicator for me is what percentage of the recommended daily intake of each of the five elements a product contains. I shop at Sainsburys and Tesco. Tesco have shown this % for a long time and it is this which I look at. It is simple relatively small sized but prominent labelling with key facts in good sized text which is to the point and uncluttered. the information can be taken in at a glance. Sainsburys by comparison have a much bigger label but pack it with such very small print (13 rows and 6 columns) that it is difficult to read and so completely fails to inform. I have not bothered looking at the Sainsburys labelling for a long time. As I was writing this I checked some recent packaging and was surprised to find that one column did include %GDA. I can see that a traffic light system would appeal but what does it mean? When does green become amber? When does amber become red?. Is Amber 2x green? %GDA is best in my view. But a composite system which shows the information in more than one way, like the one previewed, and common to all shops is the best way to go. But I will always look at the %GDA.

msatin says:
25 October 2012

One last comment about the label system. The majority of data they are based upon is wrong because it does not take digestion and bioavailability into account. The figures are all based upon the old Atwater tables and all presume total digestion. Take nuts as an example. Depending on the variety, they are somewhere between 60 – 80% digestible. Depending upon the measurement, e.g. calories, this should be reduced accordingly – but it’s not. So each product has its own digestibility factor which is not compensated for on the label. On top of that, if you eat a low digestibility product along with other foods, you affect their throughput times and their digestibility. I know it all sounds complicated and the dynamics of digestion really are, but all I want to conclude is that you cannot take the figures at face value.

Bob – you make a good point about accessibility. That’s why we have been calling for the traffic light system to carry ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ text alongside the traffic lights. Thankfully, the Government has taken note of this and has made this part of their recommendations.

It’s much better to remove the problem (the pairing of red with green) at source. You can design for good accessibility in all modes rather than ignoring it for one mode and hoping you can get away with a second mode. Red with green the worst of all pairings. The visibility of the code gets worse when it’s a small area of colour, poorly printed, and in poor light. You can use red and you can use green, just not both. This solution is readily available.

I’d also suggest the code contains shape (e.g. triangle, square, pentagon, circle, star – the triangle has fewest corners and is spikey so may be paired with the ‘bad’ colour). You can also increase perceptibility by number of elements as in hotel star ratings – one star means bad and three stars means good.

With regard to text, a non-colour mode is a good idea and recommended. But deliberate choice of a red-green pair is irrational. Providing text doesn’t make a bad colour code into a good colour code.

Please call for a colour combination that can be seen by those with red-green deficiency.

Aileen says:
4 January 2013

Lets also hope that Tesco also apply the traffic light system to their online groceries website & app. While they will take anything back if its found to be unsuitable, it would be better to give internet shoppers more product info at the time they make their order!