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Traffic light labelling must not be de-railed

The recent decision by the European Commission to launch infraction proceedings against the UK for its traffic light labelling scheme is disappointing. The scheme is vital to making informed choices.

The Department of Health went to great lengths to ensure that the scheme was compliant with the criteria for national voluntary schemes set out in the EU Food Information Regulations. It is supported by robust consumer research.

The food industry has really got behind the scheme. Retailers previously committed to other traffic light formats or other forms of front of pack labelling compromised so that consumers could have consistency wherever they shop. A broad spectrum of companies agreed to use it, including all of the retailers and several leading manufacturers, with Coca Cola most recently joining the club. About two thirds of products will soon carry the scheme and it is becoming more visible in supermarkets every day.

Tackling obesity

The initiation of the proceedings, following complaints by some other Member States, illustrates how short-term trade interests are all too often put ahead of longer term public health ones. Two thirds of people are already overweight or obese in the UK so it is essential that we tackle the issue of halting obesity rates. Apart from the human cost, our economy and health service will not be able to afford the long-term costs if rates aren’t halted.

EU Member States have made numerous policy declarations about the importance of tackling obesity, most recently in the World Health Organisation’s European Food and Nutrition Action Plan for 2015-20 adopted last month. They have also recognised that a range of measures are needed, including user-friendly, interpretative front of pack nutrition labelling.

Diet surveys repeatedly show that many people eat too much fat, sugar and salt.

This is why Which? campaigned long and hard for a label which people can understand at a glance and give them the nutritional information that helps them make an informed choice.

Fat, sugar and salt

Primarily aimed at processed foods, where the fat, sugar and salt content is not always obvious, the scheme that was agreed and launched last year shows people whether levels of these nutrients are high, medium or low using red, amber and green colour coding. It is supported by additional information on how much a portion contributes to the Reference Intake (RI) for the nutrient, expressed as a percentage.

Some producers have claimed the scheme is a barrier to trade and is an attack on imported and traditional products, rather than on unhealthy diets.

We don’t agree. The traffic light scheme is voluntary and appears on products produced in the UK as well as from other countries. It does not discourage consumers from making judgements about foods that are better quality or more traditionally produced – it just tells them exactly what is in the products that they are buying in a clear and upfront way rather than on the back of pack. The UK has two months to respond to the criticisms and defend the scheme. It must do so vigorously and we all need to support it.

This piece first appeared on The Grocer


I suspected that something was going wrong when packets without traffic light labelling continued to appear on supermarket shelves. I’m sure that some companies don’t want to own up to the fact that their products don’t look very healthy choices.

Of course, what should be happening is that traffic light labelling should be rolled out across the EU countries.

I would be interested to know how many people actually use , understand or care about the traffic light codes. However the survey would need to well constructed to avoid any bias.

My guess is those that eat the most badly also care the least, and those who eat wisely probably would not bebuying those products anyway. Do I welcom traffic lights on all products – not really. Because as with all things it will mission creep to everything we can possibly eat or drink so that looking in the larder will become a a guilt trip.

If it is purely on manufactured meals and on certain drinks I think it supportable.

Jenny says:
26 October 2014

I am not overweight and like both salt and cheese. It is the totality of the diet that is important and the traffic light labels are only marginally useful in this. Also I do not trust the government not to use the traffic light categories as a basis to apply VAT on the grounds that it is in our own best interests. I doubt very much that these labels will have any effect on the obesity epidemic. Much better to reintroduce home economics lessons into schools.

It may be useful when comparing two meals or foods in order to make a choice but I see little use otherwise.
Of course butter is going to be red for fat and sugar etc red for sugar …………..

I don’t find the coloured blobs to be very useful. I always read the entire fat/salt/etc box.

Incidentally the system is based on the average womens requirements. So provided you are the average women at 5’3″ and 65kgs ……..

So whilst it is an indicator it is open to moderation on what your size is, your type of work, age, and your metabolism. I regard it as a case of spurious accuracy drilling to fractions of grammes of fat etc.

I am in favour of highlighting excess sugars and excess saturated fats but I think that somehow the system arrived at has achieved too many figures which are based on a particular premise and have made it more complicated than it should be. Many people are just phobic about figures. Just showing how many heaped sugars are in a meal would be hugely more immediate and sugar is probably the most dangerous of all the ingredients.

The figures were there before. What the traffic light labelling does is to grade foods are low medium or high in certain components that may be harmful if consumed in excess.

The traffic light scheme does not appear to have the overwhelming support of Which? Conversationalists. I am an expert on the sugar content of most breakfast cereals but have to resort to the magnifying glass to see the nutritional information on the panels on some packs. I complained to Waitrose about the size of the font used in the large panel and after several email inquiries they told me it would be changed in a few months. About six months later the font size was still the same so I stopped buying their cereal, They also displayed the information for the portion size before the per 100g, I would be happy with a standard system where the per 100g details are shown first and the font size no smaller than newspaper print as I can read them without spectacles. I now buy my cereal in either Tesco or Aldi and buy the remainder of my shopping at the same time. I rarely shop in Waitrose and I now spend less on my weekly shop.

Clear labelling must be a priority as many of us will still wish to see the exact values.

I am supportive of traffic light labelling, but disappointed by the slow adoption and EU interference.

Introduction of traffic light labelling does not remove nutritional information presented in figures, but it does offer useful information in a simple visual form. I very much agree that the figures should be much larger, so that they can be read before purchase.

I find it quite helpful when supermarkets sell magnifying specs. I have “borrowed” them on quite a few occasions when print is too small.!!!

I am also in favour of traffic light labelling. In matters concerning ones health, some people choose to develop an ostrich type mentality by burying their head in the sand and as long as it tastes good its OK to eat. For example on a recent BBC TV programme an elderly male who had suffered two heart attacks was being fed pastry and pies by his wife. Whether she was endeavouring to hasten his demise or attempting to comply with his demands was not made clear. On the other hand, I recall a newspaper article which highlighted attempts by some wives to feed healthy foods to their husbands, only to discover their menfolk would resort to junk food when away from home.

Traffic lights are there for a purpose. Proceed on red and you stand to gain penalty points, or worse, lose your licence or maybe your livelihood or your life or someone else’s. Proceed on red with food and you stand to jeopardise your health or worse, your life or someone else’s.

Most people are aware of the nutritional figures referred to on the backs of packages but these are mainly written in very small print and most people do not have the time or the inclination to search for or analyse such statistics. It is far quicker and easier to see traffic lights clearly displayed usually on the front of packaging.

The appointment of a Consumer Minister for example, could exercise his/her powers by bringing into public awareness through advertising, the advantages of a traffic light system but, more importantly, intervene and deal with EU bureaucrats and their directives who seem hell bent on preventing any attempt by The Department of Health to tackle the problem of increasing obesity in the UK and the subsequent drain on our NHS resources.

Jo Swinson is the Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs. She has been involved with supermarket pricing and unit pricing campaigns and featured in Which? Conversation.

Let us hope then she reads ‘The Grocer’ as well as Which? Conversation. With a general election on the horizon we may look forward to some positive action.

Jo Swinson will be writing for Which? Convo tomorrow 🙂

“Diet surveys repeatedly show that many people eat too much fat, sugar and salt”. My random observations on a recent holiday show that many people eat too much, full stop. I feel that the food content message is ignored by the very people who would benefit most from heeding it; it would ease the pressure on their heart and their wallet.

I am very much in favour of traffic light labelling and cannot see how the EC can possibly stop manufacturers putting this information on the front of their packaging, especially since it is a voluntary scheme. There are far worse messages, images and suggestions on our daily foodstuffs which go unchallenged. So long as it is truthful, the traffic lights display is a helpful quick guide. It also requires the minimum of literacy skills. As others have said above, for some people the traffic lights alone are not sufficient but the detailed nutritional information is available elsewhere on the packet – albeit in tiny print sometimes and not always consistent with the portion sizes or units used on comparable products. Other major retailers no doubt supply this information on their websites although I have no experience but I can confirm that Sainsbury’s set out in a clear and easily-readable form a statement of nutritional data and other relevant information for every food product you can order on-line. [Perhaps they should also supply this in a ring-binder to consult in the shop for those who do not have access to the website.] I have always been a strong supporter of the UK’s membership of the EU but sometimes it astonishes me with its reactionary ideas and its lopsided view of the market place. I hope the UK government files a robust defence of the scheme; surely we are not alone in this . . . or are we?

uncle festa says:
29 October 2014

How can it be that processed food and ready meals are good for you?
The traffic light debate makes no sense.

We are subjected to low quality fruit and veg that do not contain the necessary vitamins and minerals to sustain a healthy life. The food is grown using artificial fertilisers that deplete the soil and produce that are grown in them of their goodness.

Pasteurised milk which causes lactose intolerance as well as killing beneficial organisms abound on the shelves of supermarkets. ONLY these days to increase the shelf life. Yet for example raw milk is not available to us. The reason? Because in past years milk was produced in dirty unhygienic circumstances that no longer apply today.

Bacon is allowed to contain carcinogens caused by the products used to cure it, there are other, safer ways of curing bacon!!! So why allow them to be used?

I am given to understand that many if not all food is subject to certain rays when the food goes into the big supermarket warehouses or airports (even organic food). So how organic is the food we purchase from our supermarkets?

We are being told that more chemicals need to be added to our drinking water etc: whilst many, many more people in the UK are found to be undernourished on (what should be) a sufficient/adequate diet. The answer we are told is to take vitamin pills!

Yet we worry about the farce around the inauguration, or not, of food traffic light systems.

The whole process reminds me of the saying “Bread and circuses” (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace. explanation taken from Wikipedia.

What we really need is less obfuscation across the entire range of the food we are buying.
Congratulations Which but is it too little and relatively late.

uncle festa – Please can you explain why pasteurisation causes lactose intolerance.

uncle festa says:
29 October 2014

Milk pasteurization damages the delicate enzyme lactase, which is required to digest the milk sugar lactose. As babies, all of us produce lactase. That’s how we’re able to digest breast milk. But in some people, lactase production declines massively by around age four, when, being fully weaned, we would have no more need for it. When drinking raw milk, this doesn’t pose a problem: the milk comes with its own lactase to digest the lactose. The problem occurs when drinking pasteurized milk. Having no lactase in either the milk or the person drinking it leads to digestive distress and diarrhea, a condition called lactose intolerance. And yet, many people who are lactose intolerant not only tolerate raw milk but thrive on it.
Hope this helps.
P/s. Unpasteurised milk is best sourced from organic herds of jersey and Guernsey cows that are fed 52 weeks per year on pastureland (this may mean silage fed in the winter) when conditions are too inclement to keep the herd(s) out or for the grass to grow sufficiently well.

Sorry, but that’s not correct, though it does appear on at least one website.

Lactase is not present in milk, but is produced by humans in the small intestine. If lactase was present in milk, it would be inactivated by stomach acid.

Some milk is treated with lactase to convert most of the lactose to glucose and galactose, making it acceptable to those with lactose intolerance. That is done before the milk is sold.

uncle festa says:
29 October 2014

I was brought up on a farm. I left to go to university and stopped drinking raw milk. After a while I was diagnosed with lactose intolerance and still suffer from it to date, as does my wife, some of my children and their husbands and wives.

After a number of years I found a supplier of raw milk. I do not suffer lactose problems when I drink it alone or in beverages, neither do my family.

After speaking to people who suffered from the same problems, those that tried the raw milk report no effects if they drink raw milk.

It seems your main point is to argue. Sorry go somewhere else.

I think there is more than one reason for lactose intolerance.

For years, milk would occasionally make me feel sick accompanied by a horrible taste in my mouth. I had the same sick feeling and taste after drinking soya milk that had gone off (drunk in strong coffee so not noticeable until smelling the container). Also the milk did not smell quite right.

Foods that are not fit for human consumption are often fed to animals. Do cows get fed soya? Does it somehow get into the milk?


Seems to be well-supported science.

Indeed, and as a scientist I am not keen on seeing incorrect information being disseminated.

Those who are lactose intolerant generally produce less lactase than normal rather than having a complete deficiency of the enzyme. Drinking lots of milk could induce the symptoms of lactose intolerance in adults that don’t normally have a problem.

uncle festa says:
29 October 2014

As a scientist? Snap, the difference is I evaluate. Where as you believe what you are told, by the big pharma and big industry.

Don’t let facts like it works stand in your way, lets have double blind placebo tests without ensuring those tests are carried out on the correct recipients. Stick to your FDA food rules they seem to impress you.

It is well worth considering other causes of lactose intolerance. (1) Primary the most common which only affects adults is genetic. (2) Caused by injury to the small intestine usually during infancy. (3) Caused by gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, chemotherapy, internal parasites, other environmental causes. (4) Congenital lactose deficiency is a very rare autosomal recessive genetic disorder that prevents lactase expression from birth – common in Finland. People with this disorder from birth cannot digest breast milk.

Based on the above I would wager that ingesting unpasteurised milk would most probably be a cause rather than a remedy but if I had the problem I would certainly investigate the causal facts rather than supposition, especially if I had been raised in a farming environment.

Apologies………you may have difficulty in locating the above website. You could try intolerance

To find the page that Beryl is referring to, go to the NHS Choices website and search for: “Lactose intolerance – Causes”

It’s good information.

Reverting back to topic – a definite red traffic light label would be appropriately and justifiably attached to any product containing unpasteurised milk in my opinion.

Unfortunately, the potential hazards of certain foods does not merit any visual warning like the traffic light system. Perhaps it should. Uncle festa mentions carcinogens in bacon and I have posted numerous comments about this.

Pasteurisation of milk is a worthy contribution to food safety:

From Wikipedia: “Distribution of raw milk is illegal in Scotland. While it is legal in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the only registered producers are in England.[24] About 200 producers sell raw, or “green top” milk direct to consumers, either at the farm, at a farmers’ market, or through a delivery service. The bottle must display the warning “this product has not been heat-treated and may contain organisms harmful to health”, and the dairy must conform to higher hygiene standards than dairies producing only pasteurised milk.

As it is only legal to supply unpasteurized milk direct to consumers, it is illegal to be sold on the High Street, via shops or supermarkets.”

fed up shopper says:
4 November 2014

Is anything going to be done about all this confusing pricing that’s still going on in the big supermarkets or am I in the wrong conversation.
I have just spent at least 30 mins in asda trying to find out what the cost of a multi pack of quavers cost per 100g. They worked it out wrong as they did d not know what the weight was to do the sums. Instead they guessed, wrongly, what they thought the weight was using the weight of an individual bag x the 14 the multipack had. However they were different weights with the single bags weigh ng more.
Can anybody help me find a way I can be part of a campaign to tackle this issues as it is going on with every selection in the shop including fresh produce.

Interesting research

” As obesity rates rise, health professionals and policy makers scramble to help consumers resist unhealthy eating choices, often focusing on better labeling and improved nutritional knowledge. According to a new study in the Journal of Marketing Research, however, training people to pay attention to their emotions is a far more powerful strategy.

“Consumers are often mindless,” write authors Blair Kidwell (Ohio State University), Jonathan Hasford (Florida International University) and David M. Hardesty (University of Kentucky). “We not only demonstrate that emotional ability is trainable and that food choices can be enhanced, but also that emotional ability training improves food choices beyond a nutrition knowledge training program.”

Study participants were given general training in recognizing basic emotions in themselves and in others, after which they were exposed to a variety of food products and packaging and asked to notice what emotions they, and others, were experiencing. After the training, both the trained participants and people who had received no training were given the opportunity to choose a snack of either a healthy item or a chocolate bar. Those who had received the training were more likely to choose the healthy item.

Three months later participants in both groups were weighed: Those who had received training in recognizing their emotions had, on average, lost weight whereas those who had received no training had actually put on weight.

The authors conclude by urging consumer educational programs to put less focus on reading nutritional labels and to instead encourage exercises that enhance emotional awareness.
“With a better understanding of how they feel and how to use emotions to make better decisions, people will not only eat better, they will also likely be happier and healthier because they relate better to others and are more concerned with their overall well-being.”

More information:
Blair Kidwell, Jonathan Hasford, and David M. Hardesty. “Emotional Ability Training and Mindful Eating.” Forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Kellogg’s cereals come in very colourful boxes so it is disappointing to notice that they cannot manage to print any colours in their traffic light nutritional labelling symbols on the packets. Obviously this makes it less likely that people will notice the actual intake references and see which elements are at the high end of the scale. Some other major manufacturers also print their labels in feint and neutral colours. And businesses wonder why we don’t trust them as much as they think they deserve.

Kelloggs is not planning to use traffic light labelling, as far as I know, John.

The worst example of deceptive colour I have seen was on an M&S ham sandwich, where the red label for salt content was salmon pink. The next time I looked, the labelling had been improved.

Supermarket soups of various brands are often just below the threshold for red labelling for salt content.

Please could Which? do an update on traffic light food labelling. The two main problems that I can see are:

1. Although supermarkets have done an excellent job in labelling their own products, some of the largest companies do not use the red, amber and green colours on their labels.

2. The portion sizes the the labels relate to are unrealistically small, possibly to make the products appear to be a more healthy choice than they are.