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Traffic light food labels – giving you the choice

Traffic light peppers

In this guest post public health minister Anna Soubry explains why the government has agreed to front-of-pack traffic light labelling for food to enable us to make informed choices about what we eat.

It seems that today, we have an abundance of choice, but so little time to choose. That’s why when we’re choosing, we need the information to be clear, obvious and appropriate.

Most of my supermarket shopping involves a bit of a list and a mad dash up and down the aisles – and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I want to make healthier choices but I haven’t got the time to go through complicated information. That’s why clear front-of-pack food labels are so important – it helps us to make the best choice.

Salt, fat, sugar and calories

Most supermarkets’ own-brand and many manufacturers’ foods already have forms of front-of-pack labelling which use a variety of graphics and information to show how much salt, fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories are in the food we are buying.

Of course this is useful, but if you buy lunch from one retailer, and then dinner from somewhere else, you see different information presented in a different way. It’s confusing and unclear, and it’s limiting our ability to make better decisions.

We know that obesity is a leading cause of serious diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and we now have some of the highest levels of obesity in Europe. Our poor diet and ill health are costing the NHS billions of pounds each year – this is why we all need help to make better decisions about the food we’re eating.

Front of pack food labels

Earlier this summer, the Department of Health asked retailers, manufacturers, health charities and members of the public for their views on what a useful and clear front of pack labelling system should look like. Responses from industry and charities, such as Which? and the British Heart Foundation, were clear that a combination of information is needed.

This is why I announced this week that we are proposing a system which includes colour coding and guideline daily amount percentages. With that information we can see at a glance which foods may be high in salt, fat and sugar, and how much food we buy contributes towards our recommended daily amounts.

Uniform food labelling system

One clear, uniform system across industry makes perfect sense. It means that for the first time, regardless of where we are shopping, we’ll be given the same nutritional information, presented in the same way.

This information is so crucial because small changes to our diet can have such a huge impact on our health. For example, if we all cut our average salt intake by 1.6 grams a day, more than 10,000 premature deaths could be prevented every single year.

I am not interested in demonising foods – the vast majority of foods can very easily be incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet. Front-of-pack nutrition labelling helps us to identify healthier options, keep track of what we are eating, and recognise when we need to eat certain foods in smaller portions or less frequently.

This change to the labelling of the foods we buy could have a real, positive impact on the way we shop, and ultimately make it very easy for us to live healthier, longer lives.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from public health minister Anna Soubry MP. All opinions expressed here are Anna’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


I am in favour of consistent labelling that gives understandable and useful information. If the traffic light method does this then OK. If the Guideline Daily Allowance recommended is a robust measure then some can judge whether what they buy matches that. But I wonder whether many will bother. Perhaps just highlighting unhealthy products as Red, and others as Green would be all that is generally needed.
However the excuse we have no time to look at the detail on food is a poor one – we buy the same food items regularly as part of a shop, so we should remember whether these suit us or not, and concentrate on those that are new to us – ensure detailed contents information is also provided.
An argument is ongoing about whether the system should be used on sweets. These are not food, they are treats, and many know that they contain a lot of sugar – do we need warning labels? And soft drinks – full of sugar too?
And restaurant and fast-food outlet food? How can you deal with that?
Much of this contributes to obesity. Perhaps what is more effective is better publicity as to what to avoid or take in moderation so a sensible balanced diet is achieved.
You have to question the Government’s (past and present) integrity in dealing with this when, for example, they had to give fast food and soft drinks companies a virtual monopoly at the Olympic Games as a condition of hosting them? Perhaps the money the NHS would save long term by reducing obesity would be more important?

Traffic light food labels will in no way solve the problem of obesity on their own, but they are a step in the right direction. Thank you for that. Now, the job is not done. What else do you think you can do?

Alan Robinson says:
27 October 2012

I believe that there are many people who have difficulty with percentages. Would it not be better to use fractions? These would have to be simple (i.e. 1/3, 1/4, 1/5 etc, not 3/7, 2/9 etc) and may make the information slightly less accurate, but would this matter – 7% is about 1/14 and 6% 1/17.

Also, where portion information is given, should this not be related to the pack size not portion weight? Again simple fractions, e.g “1/3 of this pizza”, or “1/4 of this pack”.

I agree that no system will be perfect, but the traffic lights on their own certainly help, and many will look a little further into the information just because it is shown on the front of the pack and will gain their attention. There are many of us who need a simple system as even if we can understand the variety of current methods of providing information direct comparison is impossible.

I sympathise with the % question, but perhaps this is a reflection of our poor ability to teach simple maths properly – numeracy is such an important part of life that our education system should ensure all can deal with everyday number problems – interest rates, energy tariffs, and so on.
I also wonder just what use people will put these traffic light and % GDA to – other than reading them as good or bad. Much food will not be labelled will it?- bacon, dairy, preserves and whatever. If the idea is to help achieve a balanced diet, how will the contribution of home-cooked food be accounted for? We don’t live exclusively on bought prepared food.
I am in favour of a system that discloses the important contents of manufactured food, but wonder what the really useful information is that we can act on. Banning potentially harmful substances in food, or excessive levels of them, should run alongside any system.

Please don’t use red and green. It’s not accessible

Bob, colour blindness? If so, why not simply Good and Bad (and OK if we must have a third equivalent to amber.

Total colour blindness is very rare. The common form is called ‘red-green’ blindness but it’s easier to understand if you call it a deficiency. People that are red-green ‘blind’ can actually see many colours just as well as anyone else. Humans can’t see infra-red like snakes can, so we’re all infra-red deficient and it would make no sense to use infra-red colours. So only the ignorant or uncaring designer, politician, or advisor would pair red with green. You can have red with almost any other colour, or green with almost any other colour. Just don’t put the two together.

Yes you should use alternate modes (shape, size, contrast, number of items such as three stars, and text). But you *can* use colours that are more accessible. The knowledge is widely available.





Yes by all means have the ‘traffic light’ system, providing we also have the ‘portion’ figure, plus the
guideline daily amount,because without the latter the traffic light system on its own is not very useful.
If people are incapable of simple arithmetic such as understanding percentages, after, for most of them, 11 years of full time schooling, then to cope with today’s technological society they may wish to enroll in a simple mathematics course to do what their schools didn’t do for them.

Feeding a diet-controlled diabetic with a dairy allergy, I just hope the system is not over-simplified. I need weights and percentages to work out how much carbs/sugars my other half consumes.

The existing nutritional information will remain in text. I believe that the system is to replace the various alternative versions of visual information highlighting the fat, sugar and salt content of food, and to add this information where it is not provided.