/ Food & Drink

Is a new nutrition labelling scheme really needed?

traffic lights

This week, six of the world’s largest food manufacturers announced that they will be launching a task force to look at developing a front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme.

At first glance, this all sounds quite positive – particularly as they say that they will use traffic light labelling.

But when you look at the small print, there’s a crucial element that undermines this new proposal.

The six manufacturers want to integrate portion-size criteria into the existing UK traffic light scheme.

Current scheme

The current UK scheme was developed by the government, following a lot of discussions across the food industry and with consumer and public health groups.

It uses traffic light colours on the front of packs to tell consumers whether a product is high, medium or low in fat, sugar or salt.

It also gives information on how much of these a portion contains and what this means in terms of the contribution to your reference intake (%RI). This helps you get an idea of how significant eating the product is, relative to other things you might eat that day.

All food retailers have committed to use these on their own-brand products, as well as Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé and Pepsico, who, along with Unilever and Mondelez, are part of this latest announcement.

Size matters

What is really important, however, is that the current traffic light colours are based on per 100g or per 100ml of the product.

This is because different manufacturers use different portion sizes for similar products.

You may also eat a different amount compared to what is recommended.

Some people’s intakes of some of the products these manufacturers produce – whether that’s chocolate, tomato ketchup or breakfast cereal – can vary a lot, and even be different depending on the occasion.

Sometimes you may also want to compare across different types of products, too – for example, the salt or fat levels in different sandwich fillings or types of snack, or the sugar content in yogurts, puddings and ice cream.

There’s also an issue of just how realistic company portion sizes are.

On the one hand, companies don’t want to encourage us to overindulge, particularly when the main motivation for the labelling is to help people make healthier choices.

But on the other, they need to reflect how much we’re likely to eat.

One scheme for all

These issues aren’t new. They were hotly debated when the UK scheme was first developed.

It was decided that using the scheme to enable comparisons on a like-for-like basis was best.

Criteria were added to take account of particularly large portions so that they didn’t come out as looking healthier than was the case, given how much you eat (ready meals, for example).

We don’t need a small-portion criteria that will do the reverse – making unhealthy foods look healthier than is really the case.

We’ve spent a lot of time designing a nutrition labelling scheme.

Other formats have also been suggested to complement the traffic light scheme – such as spoonfuls of sugar on the front of pack.

But we think that these manufacturers should just get on with the job: stop trying to devise a new scheme that will make their products look more favourable and use the current traffic light one, so we all know what we’re eating.

What do you think about the new suggestion for front-of-pack food labelling? What type of products do you find the current traffic light scheme most useful for?


KIS. The labelling must be kept extremely simple and visually simple to decode. Manufacturers will want it to be complex so people will have trouble working out what’s unhealthy or healthy. We need something that can be assessed at a glance; people rarely have time to read a dissertation while shopping.

This is where the ‘traffic light’ labelling is useful. The other information provided can be ignored or looked at when at home to help consumers decide whether to buy the same product again or maybe make an alternative choice. Some have health problems and for them the nutritional labelling can be valuable.

If government legislation required a standard way of presenting nutritional information, per 100g or ml for example, but this was not related to portion size then this would mean little to those trying to evaluate their diet. It would be better if manufacturers then standardised portion size.

However, more fundamentally, I wonder how many people really pay attention to this information. Has anyone researched this?

As my other half is a diet-controlled diabetic, our main interest is carbs and sugars.

I have just got a 450g ready meal out of the fridge.
On the front it says Each pack (387g**) heated contains Sugars 9.4g 10% in green. Underneath it says of the reference intake*. I really don’t understand what the 2 asterisks and the 1 asterisk refer to as there is no explanation
On the rear it says Carbohydrate 12.9, of which sugars 2.4g per 100g,
10% %RI*, 90g RI* for an average adult. Underneath in smaller print it says *Reference intake of an average adult (8400kJ/2000kcal) **When heated according to instructions 450g typically weighs 387g. Does 8 minutes in a microwave really shrink the weight by 16%.

Is this lot meant to confuse you or what? The rear of the pack does explain the asterisks eventually.

On the same ready meal, carbs come in the form of Muscovado sugar, tomato ketchup, sugar, caramelised sugar, potato, wheat flour. On this pack all the listed carbs are not that good, but what I would like to know is the percentage of the different types of carbohydrate. Listing good and bad carbs in the ingredient list is meaningless when you don’t know how much of each the product contains.

For a diet-controlled diabetic, we aim for less than 4% sugars in food. The total carbs per 100g is also taken into consideration, along with what type of ingredients make up those carbs. A main meal low in carbs and sugar, might mean a treat of ice cream afterwards that may be not be quite as good.

I have to admit I take very little notice of traffic light info on the front of packets. I might have second thoughts if I see a lot of red, but my mind will be made up by reading the ingredients and nutritional info on the back.

I am always somewhat suspicious when I see companies like those named lining up together on the pretext of doing something for ‘our’ benefit.

Maybe they are intending to sneakily reduce product sizes under the guise of standardising portions and healthy eating.

I don’t know how portion sizes are established. Out of interest I have occasionally weighed the amount of muesli that I am about to eat for breakfast. It is generally 85-90g, about twice the portion size shown on most packets. It does not matter if it is home-made muesli or prefabricated commercial stuff.

I presume a portion size in practice will depend upon your age, your sex, your size, the type of work or exercise you undertake, and so on. So how worthwhile would a “standard portion” size be.

Now, we all eat lots of different foods during a single day, and will we look at each meal, each component, work out the intake of the different elements like energy, fats, sugar, salt , saturates? Call me a sceptic but I doubt many except those with particular problems would even bother to try. I have gauged my food intake by what I like, and eaten the amount I wanted, as have all our family and, touch wood, we seem to remain nutritionally OK.

I suspect ‘portion size’ is a smokescreen.

I find nutritional information interesting and useful and as you say, it is important to some with health problems. It can be ignored by others. What I’m suggesting is simply that portion size reflects what people consume. I suspect that most people eat more than the portion sizes shown on manufactured foods. The portion size could be either the average or alternatively the median amount consumed. I don’t know how the current figures are established.

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The truth is, the healthiest, most nutrient dense food usually comes without a label or nutritional information. Of course, most of those brands are linked to big pharmaceutical companies, who help devise all these labels and steer the research in favour of their own continued commercial success.

I do not even bother to look .If Ii like a food I will buy it.I know some people must be careful about what they eat so there must be VERY clear information on foods and it must be easily understood .. Nothing at all comlicated ,plain language as well .I am lucky to be like I am eating foods I like not worrying what has be put in them to make them look good to eat

I support the ‘traffic light’ labelling system but there are some obvious changes required.

1. The labels should be used on all products by all manufacturers.
2. The labelling system should be standardised to make the information easy to read and to compare.
3. Portion size should reflect what the average person would consume and apply to all products of that type.

The photo accompanying Sue’s introduction looks like typical nutritional labelling used by Tesco. Normally there would be a portion size shown, but presumably this example is from a single portion pack.

Other manufacturers provide us with the same information but in slightly different ways. Compare the Tesco system with the one used by Morrisons, for example. The labels are smaller on Morrisons products, and two numbers are printed in small text on a coloured (red/amber/green) background. For legibility, it’s best to avoid printing text on a coloured background. There is a clear case for standardising the size of labels and making them as clear as possible for those who don’t have perfect eyesight.

I am strongly in favour of retaining the present labelling system, making it consistent and improving legibility.

I always think portion size is fairly meaningless.

What sort of person is the portion aimed at, old, young, active, sedentary? How are you supposed to know what constitutes a portion? It might be obvious on some foods, but not all.

What is a portion of breakfast cereal? You probably have more if it is the only thing you eat or less if you follow it with toast. Then there is they type of milk you have with it.

Do you eat a whole moussaka ready meal or share it with someone and have some salad on the side.

It would be interesting to know how useful people find traffic lights other than the indication of the colours and how they use them to control their diet. What use do they make of all the numbers they are presented with?

Portion sizes can vary according to the amount of physical activity carried out during the day, ones gender and tendency to retain water (more common in women) and ones propensity to avariciousness. Food and drink, especially that containing large amounts of refined sugar can also be highly addictive. When this happens your addiction takes control over your mind, your thought processes and all good intentions are abandoned.

The answer is (if you haven’t already done so) to invest in some accurate bathroom scales and make it a routine to jump on them every morning upon rising and then increase or decrease the size of your portions according to your desired weight, if you have one.

Too much exercise can make you more hungry and you can end up eating even more so that exercise is then increased leading to dependency and, as with food or drink, in susceptible people, anorexia, bulimia or alcoholism.

Traffic lights are an essential and useful guide to inform you of the content of the food you are eating and especially for people with existing health problems, but it’s up to each individual (adult) to control the amount they consume and perhaps, more importantly, that of their children.

Tricky, that; you’d need to define what you mean by ‘too much exercise’ and I’m not sure that even top athletes succumb to “anorexia, bulimia or alcoholism.” very often. We don’t yet really understand the mechanisms of addiction, so I suspect it’s a tad unwise to suggest the fervent exercisers among us are heading down the greasy slope to a life of hopeless addiction. And the ‘susceptible’ rarely seem to require excessive exercise to enter the cycle of dependency.

As for portion size, I suspect it’s simply a way for the companies that make less than nutritious offerings to confuse the situation. Malcolm, I think it was, said “Just don’t buy stuff with unhealthy contents would be one way of dealing with this.”. I agree. One portion of deep fried bacon is likely to be less healthy than one portion of mixed salad.

Maybe having more exercise than usual encourages overeating. I notice this when I’m on holiday, especially if combined with eating late.

It certainly make you hungrier, obviously, but over-eating is a different issue, I suspect.

Ian, it’s impossible for me to define how much exercise is good for one person and not another except to say that exercise in moderation is no bad thing. It is, on the other hand, very wise for people (adults) first to be made aware of the general guidelines (not to be interpreted as a formality) so that they are free to choose to follow them or not. That is everyone’s prerogative.

Definition of guidelines
1). A non specific rule or principle that provides direction to action or behaviour
2). A plan or explanation to guide one in setting standards or determining a course of action.

Definition of susceptible
1). Likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing.
2). Vulnerable, an easy target, defenceless, naive, gullible.

Scientific studies are making huge progress in relation to addiction, and in particular how dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain. See: help guide.org – Understanding Addiction – How Addiction Hi-jacks the Brain. (Adapted with permission from a Harvard Health Publication Letter.)

How relevant this info is to the importance of food labelling is debatable, but I believe consumers have a right to know the amount of any potential harmful substances contained in their food that can have an adverse effect on their general health and wellbeing.

But Beryl, you stated ‘Too much exercise…’ which means you would have to have a baseline figure in mind in the first place, surely? You can’t really have too much of something unless you have an idea of what constitutes the right amount. When you then go on to imply “it can lead to dependency and, as with food or drink, in susceptible people, anorexia, bulimia or alcoholism. ” I think that’s an unwise conclusion.

I use the indicator labels occasionally, not to choose the food we should have but to discriminate between alternatives of the same type of food. This is not helped by inconsistencies between the manufacturers over portion size so I feel ‘per standard unit’ [for example, 50g or 100 ml] values are more useful. This is where the different manufacturers should get together and agree on an appropriate common unit for each product category.

I buy ‘fresh’ soups in supermarkets. I might only look at the ‘traffic light’ labels in the shop but have looked at the detail at home. I would prefer our Food Standards Agency to make the decisions and the manufacturers to comply.

I do wish they would standardise things like tomato ketchup that can be listed as gm or ml. For a diabetic, gms is the most useful.

It is interesting that neither John or wavechange looked at the numbers on the traffic lights.

Personally I find them confusing and too much time required to work them out when I have maybe 20 other items to buy,

I wonder whether this is a national issue, or whether the EU would be involved? I would expect, if the UK go it alone, for the FSA, manufacturers and nutritionists to work together to produce a sensible outcome. However I doubt whether portion size – average or median, or any other “representative” figure – would be of value to most. I’d stick with values per 100g or 100ml for example and if people really do want or need to work out the numbers they can relate this to the size of portion they will take out of the pack.

I certainly do look at the numbers on the ‘traffic lights’, Alfa, but that often waits until I’m home. I don’t want to stay in a supermarket longer than necessary. Using the numbers helps me decide whether to buy a product again.

For most liquids, g and ml are approximately the same, an exception being oils and anything with a high content of oil. I have suggested before that we could replace ml with g but others disagreed.

Ian, I repeat it is possible to have too much exercise. Read the link I posted.

OK, so let me get this straight, they’ll be looking at changing the labeling, rather than changing the unhealthy contents.

They might be making portion sizes smaller so that will make them healthier. 😉

Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, Pepsico, Unilever and Mondelez are not names usually associated with healthy foods, so you might be right, William.

Just don’t buy stuff with unhealthy contents would be one way of dealing with this.

“Healthy” is not everyone’s sole criterion for buying eatables. They also by things to consume for other reasons – enjoyment being one. Alcohol, chocolate, sweets, cake, sausages, bacon…………………….for example. Advice on what to eat is one thing but we all have the freedom to then do as we please (fortunately).

Chocolate has some very healthy attributes. The rest….less so.

Definitely. Low salt too, except that some of it isn’t these days.

What’s next? Sugar in soup? No we have that already. 🙁

They can all have benefits, but the point is how much of them you consume.

I wonder how red-green colour blind people (mainly males) get on with ‘traffic light’ labels on foods. Road traffic lights are easy because red is at the top. If in doubt, look at the numbers. It is shocking how long it took to replace the old green/red/black colours used in electrical cables.

The ‘traffic light’ labels have been with us for some time but not all manufacturers are using them. Checking the cereal cupboard I found Dorset Cereals are not using them and Kellogg’s has the labels but does not use the colours. Keep up at the back, please.

Eustace D'Souza says:
17 March 2017

added sugars should be labelled by defined tea spoons of sugar in chocolate bars per packet and in the case of a cereal packet by a life size of pictured bowl on the box. it is quite hard to visualize grams of sugar or the traffic signal system. of course it will tweaking

Portion sizes are meaningless, my husband always has more than I do, often he has almost two thirds and I have just over a third of a pack. Per 100g is by far the best way, we just need to help people understand how to do the maths. Would improve national numeracy as well as health.

The current system using traffic lights on the front of the packet is excellent as a guide which is quick and easy to assess – as they say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! It is also very important to have a common standard such as 100g/100ml in order to make a quick comparison between foods. Using a portion size can be useful but also very confusing because it can be used to mislead the consumer/shopper and make the food look healthier than it is, its difficult to compare foods/products and a portion for a child is very different to that for an adult.

Alan B says:
10 April 2017

I only use the ‘Back of Pack’ nutrition labelling to determine the amount of sugar and other nutrients in a food product. I use this information to add to a spreadsheet to calculate my overall nutrition intake. I am T2DM.
The front of pack labelling and the so-called Reference Intake, I ignore.
What would be more relevant would be a declaration on the front of the package for the amount of Added Sugar (Non-Milk Extrinsic Sugars – NMES) as a percentage and the total quantity in the product. This will allow the consumer to be immediately aware how much sugar is added to a product. If this is done , then, I suspect, a ‘Sugar Tax’ will be unnecessary – the consumer will indicate to the manufacturer that enough is enough by a fall in sales.
It will not be necessary to alter the Back of Pack nutrition label since this is governed by EU law.

Portion size traffic light system is a joke. Take a grab and go bottle of coke. Traffic lights on there per portion. Read the small print a bottle is 2 portions. I do not know anyone who splits a 500ml bottle of coke.