/ 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.