UK food retailers have apparently bowed to pressure and are on the verge of introducing the traffic lights food labelling system, which a number of campaigners have been demanding for a few years.
With Sainsbury’s long on board and Aldi, Tesco and Lidl having been announced as recent joiners, Morrisons and Iceland are the retailers continuing to oppose the introduction of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) preferred system.
Let us take a look at how traffic light labelling actually works, what the standards are and the inevitable law of unintended consequences…
Traffic light labelling scheme
This is the FSA document detailing the standards of the scheme. This tells us that the red, amber and green ‘rules’ are as follows:
For food (per 100g):
Red (high) (Note 1)
> 3.0 to ≤ 20.0g/100g
> 21.0g / portion
> 1.5 to ≤ 5.0g/100g
> 6.0g / portion
> 5.0 to ≤ 12.5g/100g
> 15.0g / portion
> 0.30 to ≤ 1.50g/100g
> 2.40g / portion[iii]
(Note 1) In addition to the per 100g criteria, there are ‘per portion’ criteria for food. The per portion criteria ensure that any food which contributes more than 30% (40% for salt) of an adult’s recommended daily maximum intake for a particular nutrient is labelled red (high).
The colour code for sugars is determined in terms of both the total and added sugar components as follows[iv]: –
– Green if total sugars are less than or equal to 5g/100g.
– Amber if total sugars exceed 5g/100g and added sugars are less than 12.5g/100g.
– Red if added sugars are more than 12.5g/100g.
For drink (per 100ml):
> 1.5 to ≤ 10.0 g/100ml
> 0.75 to ≤ 2.5 g/100ml
>2.5 to ≤ 6.3 g/100ml
> 0.30 to ≤ 1.50g/100ml
The colour code for sugars is determined in terms of both the total and added sugar components as follows: –
– Green if total sugars are less than or equal to 2.5g/100ml.
– Amber if total sugars exceed 2.5g/100ml and added sugars are less than 6.3g/100ml.
– Red if added sugars are more than 6.3/100ml.
Here is what happens with some example foods:
All per 100g/100ml
Whole milk[x] – 100ml
Apples – English cox
Shredded wheat (68.5g carbohydrate)
White flour[xii] (73.5g carbohydrate)
Bread – multi grain[xiii]
Bread – white[xiv]
Pasta[xv] (70.7g carbohydrate)
(Red lights have been put in bold for extra differentiation from the amber indicators).
The law of unintended consequences
All real foods in the table above have at least one red/amber traffic light warning and olives and cheese have three. The former being a good source of natural fat – especially the much eulogised monounsaturated fat – and the latter being an excellent source of calcium and the other bone nutrients vitamin D and phosphorus.
With one exception, all processed foods in the table above have green lights for fat, saturated fat and sugar. Multi grain bread gets an amber for fat content – because of the highly nutritious seeds that it contains. White bread scores better than multi grain.
Diet coca-cola gets a green light despite containing aspartame – the dangers of which are well documented. Flour, bread and pasta get green lights despite being nutritionally poor and extremely high in carbohydrate.
Worrying about salt is pointless – our simple message should be “don’t eat processed food” and then we have no need to worry about salt. Real food has sodium and potassium in natural balance, as these two minerals need to be.
A bag of sugar, with no nutritional value whatsoever, would get green lights for fat, saturated fat and salt – an obvious red light for sugar. Sweets generally would get green lights for fat, saturated fat and salt. They would get red lights for sugar only – appearing healthier overall than olives and sunflower seeds on first sight.
The ‘at a glance’ consumer will reach for processed, rather than real, food. The ‘food’ companies must be delighted.
The traffic light system clearly reinforces the government dietary advice to “base your meals on starchy foods”. This is despite these foods being uniquely fattening and nutritionally incomparable to the meat, fish, dairy products and seeds with red and amber flags in the table above.
Here is a table comparing the nutritional value of some of the products in the table above (the highest value for each nutrient is highlighted – sunflower seeds – one of the two real foods to get two red lights – is the most nutritious product in the table below overall. If liver had been in this table, it would have won on most nutrient comparisons, by the way):
(All per 100g)
Folic Acid (mcg)
We should also note strongly in this post that singling out saturated fat from the three different fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – is absurd. Whenever fat is found naturally in food, all three fats are found – there are no exceptions. Meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds all contain all three fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Saturated fat is simply the most stable fat chemically (the carbon chain being fully saturated with hydrogen atoms) and therefore the safest to cook with, as it does not mutate at high temperatures.
There is only one food group with more saturated than unsaturated fat – dairy products. Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and even lard (ha ha) all have more unsaturated than saturated fat. Not that one is better or worse than another – but just to set the record straight. There are 13.5 grams of fat in our example rump steak above. 5.8 grams of this are saturated; 7.7 grams are unsaturated. The idea that 44% of the few grams of fat in this steak – the saturated portion – is trying to kill you, while the other 56% – the unsaturated portion – is heart healthy and trying to save you is about as stupid a nutritional notion as can be made up.
Nature is not trying to kill us! This traffic light system will drive us down the desired route of basing our meals on nutritionally useless starchy foods. That’s why we’re fat and sick.
The only labelling policy that we need is this:
“Don’t eat any product that requires a label”!
[i] The Agency has asked SACN to review and advice on intakes of sugars as part of its future work programme.
[ii] Sodium from all sources expressed as salt.
[iii] To be reviewed in 2008 to reflect progress on salt reduction work
[iv] For the purposes of the Agency’s front of pack nutrition signpost scheme, added sugars is defined as any mono- or disaccharide or any other food used for its sweetening properties. This would include, but is not exclusively limited to: sucrose, fructose, glucose, glucose syrups, fructose-glucose syrups, corn syrups, invert sugar, honey, maple syrup, malt extract, dextrose, fruit juices, deionised fruit juices, lactose, maltose, high maltose syrups, Agave syrup, dextrin and maltodextrin.
The sugars contained in dried fruit are assumed to be intrinsic and are not included as added sugars. The sugars in milk powder are not included as added sugars, in line with COMA dietary guidelines which deemed sugars in milk as a special case and did not set guidelines to limit their intake.
[v] The Agency has asked SACN to review and advice on intakes of sugars as part of its future work programme.
[vi] Sodium from all sources expressed as salt.
[vii] Waitrose essential pitted green olives
[viii] Duchy original organic British rump steak
[ix] Waitrose essential English mature cheddar cheese strength 4
[x] Waitrose 3.5% fat (blue top) whole milk
[xii] Duchy original white flour
[xiii] Waitrose farmhouse multigrain bread http://www.waitrose.com/shop/ProductView-10317-10001-20316-Waitrose+farmhouse+batch+multigrain
[xiv] Waitrose soft white bread http://www.waitrose.com/shop/ProductView-10317-10001-38210-Waitrose+soft+white+medium+sliced
[xv] Essential waitrose macaroni http://www.waitrose.com/shop/ProductView-10317-10001-8289-essential+Waitrose+macaroni