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Traffic Light Labels for Food Products in the UK

January 7th, 2011 · 4 Comments ·
 
 

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How often do you look at the food label before you buy the product? Most people do not bother. Not because they do not care, but because understanding the label is just not plain easy. Food Standards Agency in UK knows this and it has introduced “traffic light” system for food products since early year 2007.

The traffic light colors are printed on the front of food packs. You can take a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt in every 100 gram of the food. It does not replace the detailed information printed on the back. The meaning of the color codes is:

  • Red = High
  • Amber = Medium
  • Green = Low

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For example, red light indicates food is high in something we should be trying to cut down on whereas green means the food is low in that nutrient. The more green lights, the healthier the choice.  Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, the Co-Op, Marks and Spencer and Asda are the companies which has endorsed the new system.  Because of its consumer friendliness, traffic-light labels apparently have a big affect on consumer behavior. Sunday Times has revealed sales of some ready meals have experienced sharp declines, as much as 40%, after the traffic-light scheme was introduced.

Five large food manufacturers, Kellogg’s, Danone, Kraft, Nestlé and Pepsico, were the first batch against this traffic light labeling. Retailers like Tesco and Morrisons also disagreed with the new labeling. The coalition has later increased to have 21 members including Cadbury Schwepps , Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup Company, Masterfoods and Unilever. They came out with their own guideline which is named as Guideline Daily Allowance (GDA) which they claimed will help consumers to make better informed decisions about the food they eat. For them, 3-color of labeling is unscientific. They also started a £4m huge advertising campaign to defeat that traffic light system because they claimed that they were being made scapegoats for Britain obesity health issue.

I am puzzling. If their food is healthy, why do they believe that they are the scapegoat?

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Some critics said that the GDA system is flawed because nearly half of adults lack the numerical skills to understand what the labels mean. One may need to sit down and start to work out what that percentage means. In fact, the latest statistic shows that 80% of the 17,000 parents backed traffic lights. Mothers find it easier to teach their children about healthy food with traffic light system. Even the British Medical Association has officially support the traffic light idea.

The reason most food companies are against the use of traffic light system because they worry that consumer will misinterpret that red means don’t buy. To be fair, red should be interpreted as “high in fat, salt or sugar – therefore don’t eat too much of this product.”

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Good or bad, food companies may be should consider incorporating both labeling – traffic light and GDA – to ensure all parties are satisfied. However, will it defeat the purpose if the labels confuse the customer which it suppose to help them to make better (and hopefully, easy) decision?

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Category: Nutrition


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4 responses so far ↓
  • justin // Jan 7, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    food packaging in Malaysia also have these labels?

  • Mun // Jan 13, 2011 at 12:34 AM

    Not yet and I really look forward to it.

  • Calum // Jan 17, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    The traffic light system is good, some stores have had this on their own brand products in the UK for a couple of years.

    The % system is also good, and can be seen on UK drinks bottles, and sweets for example.

    Why don’t they combine the two to make a new system,
    Traffic lights with the percentage in the coloured circle would make it soo much easier.

  • Prapaisri // Mar 27, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    Hi Mun,

    I am doing a promotion of posting a traffic light label on the front of food packaging. I read your article on Trafic light label in UK report Jan 7th, 2011 in http://munfitnessblog.com/traffic-light-labels-for-food-products-in-the-uk/ and would like to cite your name. Please let me know how to cite this article.

    We plan to put % of recommendation in colored circle to let people know how much those nutrients they will get.

    Also you mentioned about the report on the survey of 17,000 parents “In fact, the latest statistic shows that 80% of the 17,000 parents backed traffic lights. Mothers find it easier to teach their children about healthy food with traffic light system. Even the British Medical Association has officially support the traffic light idea.” Please give me a reference of this report.

    Many thanks,
    Prapaisri

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