Food CompaniesMacronutrientsMedia WatchPublic HealthSugar

Traffic Light Labelling – how does it work?

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):


Green (low)

Amber (medium)

Red (high) (Note 1)

Fat ≤ 3.0g/100g > 3.0 to ≤ 20.0g/100g > 20.0g/100g > 21.0g / portion
Saturated ≤ 1.5g/100g > 1.5 to ≤ 5.0g/100g > 5.0g/100g > 6.0g / portion
Sugars[i] ≤ 5.0g/100g > 5.0 to ≤ 12.5g/100g > 12.5g/100g > 15.0g / portion
Salt[ii] ≤ 0.30g/100g > 0.30 to ≤ 1.50g/100g > 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):

  Green (low) Amber (medium) Red (high)
Fat ≤ 1.5g/100ml > 1.5 to ≤ 10.0 g/100ml > 10.0g/100ml
Saturated ≤ 0.75g/100ml > 0.75 to ≤ 2.5 g/100ml > 2.5g/100ml
Sugars[v] ≤ 2.5g/100ml >2.5 to ≤ 6.3 g/100ml > 6.3g/100ml
Salt[vi] ≤ 0.30g/100ml > 0.30 to ≤ 1.50g/100ml > 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 Fat Sat fat Sugar Salt


11.6 1.7 0.1 1.5

Rump steak[viii]

13.5 5.8 0 0

Whole mackerel

16.3 3.3 0 0.13

Cheddar cheese[ix]

32 20.8 0.1 0.72

Whole milk[x] – 100ml

3.6 2.3 4.7 0.06

Sunflower seeds[xi]

49.2 12.2 3.7 trace

Apples – English cox

0.1 0.01 11.8 0.003

Shredded wheat (68.5g carbohydrate)

2.2 0.5 0.7 trace

Diet Coca-Cola

0 0 0 0.005

White flour[xii] (73.5g carbohydrate)

1.9 0.4 1.9 0.0025

Bread – multi grain[xiii]

3.5 0.45 3.5 0.4

Bread – white[xiv]

1.7 0.28 3.9 0.4

Pasta[xv] (70.7g carbohydrate)

1.3 0.3 1.8 0


(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)

Sirloin steak Milk (whole) Cheddar cheese
Apple Sunflower Seeds Flour (white)
Calories 154 60 403 52 584 364
Protein Quality 94 85 125 31 88 43
A (IU) 0 102 1,002 54 50 0
B1 (mg) 0.1 0 0 0.0 1.5 0.1
B2 (mg) 0.1 0.2 0.4 0.0 0.4 0
B3 (mg) 7.2 0.1 0.1 0.1 8.3 1.3
B5 (mg) 0.6 0.4 0.4 0.1 1.1 0.4
B6 (mg) 0.6 0 0.1 0.0 1.3 0
Folic Acid (mcg) 13 5 18 3 227 26
B12 (μg/mcg) 1.2 0.4 0.8 0.0 0 0
C (mg) 0 0 0 4.6 1.4 0
D (IU) 0 40 12 neg 0 0
E (mg) 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.2 33.2 0.1
K (μg/mcg) 1.2 0.2 2.8 2.2 0 0.3
Calcium (mg) 27 123 721 6 78 15
Magnesium (mg) 22 10 28 5 325 22
Phosphorus (mg) 193 91 512 11 660 108
Potassium (mg 323 143 98 107 645 107
Sodium (mg) 54 40 621 neg 9 2
Minerals (T)        
Copper (mg) 0.1 0.0 0 0.0 1.8 0.1
Iron (mg) 1.5 0.0 0.7 0.1 5.2 1.2
Manganese (mg) 0.0 0.0 0 0.0 1.9 0.7
Selenium (mcg) 24.1 3.7 13.9 0.0 53.0 33.9
Zinc (mg) 3.9 0.4 3.1 0.0 5.0 0.7


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

[xiv] Waitrose soft white bread

[xv] Essential waitrose macaroni

12 thoughts on “Traffic Light Labelling – how does it work?

  • Pingback: Relax, simplified food labelling and traffic lights are on the way … « pause for food

  • Cool, thanks for those, I have posted the link. Whilst being away from the board, I was told that Harriet Hall said this :-

    which the person claimed debunked Gary Taubes theory. However, I think they are determined not to feel guilty about laughing at fat people, so it MUST be that fat people are to blame. What I found interesting is that Harriet Hall – in this article – says we must not berate fat people for lacking will power, we should instead look at why they find it so hard.

    Perhaps people in the world could also stop making fun of them as well? We’ll see.

  • Oh this depresses me beyond belief. The real issue I see is that this conveniently leads the government on to do a stupid tax on “fat” – just tax everything that gets a red light in the fat department. I look forward to the day when I can no longer afford to eat, as my nanny state government will put all such “dangerous” food out of my price range. Then I’d lose weight – I mean, starve to death – just to show them. Even Waitrose, who used to allow us to make up our minds, have started upping the price of pork chops apparently for the sole reason that they sometimes remove that lovely strip of fat attached to them. My favourite piece of pork now is belly pork, but my partner cannot handle eating that amount of fat.
    Whilst convenience foods are so very cheap, the government shows us how hyprocritical they are about helping our health.
    Oh Zoe, I am having a huge argument with someone on line about fat, and the reasons people get fat. I was incensed by a comment from someone who stated that losing weight was simply a matter of eating less and moving more. I did respond rather vigorously (this is a “no holds” barred forum, so anything goes) and did get a slightly amended statement further down the line. However, I was barraged by one member who insisted that high fat/low carb was a fad, and a dangerous one at that. I was highly amused by his insistance that I could not be eating fat and losing weight. He can’t see me, he doesn’t know me from Adam, but apparently he can tell from thousands of miles away that I am not losing weight. This is from a forum of sceptics who will happily take apart any commonly held belief, except when it conflicts with their ‘knowledge’. I don’t know if anyone has any advice, since although I have directed people to this website and hightlighted Dr Bernstein’s work on the matter, I am still being told I am astoundingly ignorant (the last comment I had was that “calories in = calories out, unless I want to challenge the first law of thermodynamics”). My immediate thoughts are to leave this argument alone, but I want to fight the assumption that since fat people are fat because “it’s their own fault”, other people have a right to laugh at them and treat them like a sub class of human beings.

  • That Kroger system (NuVal) is so scientific that they used the chemical symbol for naphtahlene — a toxic and carcinogenic hydrocarbon — as their logo. That about tells me all I need to know about the level of scientific expertise held by its creators. The fact that it considers a pasta noodle and shredded wheat (assuming dry – yuck) to be better than Atlantic salmon makes it look like an even bigger joke than its logo.

  • I hear Central Europe’s food industry is against these silly traffic lights, if only because just about any food with some taste would show up red (if not, wait for incoming salt – free glutamate – any fun at all traffic lights).

    I shall however point out that palm oil (50%) and coconut oil (90%) seem to be listed as mostly saturated. Granted nature didn’t deliver palm oil canisters, but natural coconuts should have the same fat composition in their fat as coconut fat, the latter being made out of the former. Though whole coconuts are indeed uncommon in Western cuisine.

  • Unintended consequences indeed. You have to wonder why the food manufacturers were so resistant to this in the first place. They’ve caved in now because it’s clear there will be no dent in their profits.

    I suppose I ought to look out for further increase in price for my oxtail, steak, butter, marrow bones, clams and clotted cream.

    Btw: you were away for far too long.

  • As the majority of population will keep eating carbs after this comes in, the reduced isle will remain abundantly stocked with that terribly dangerous fatty meat stuff and bits of chicken that are not lean breast will remain cheap. Every cloud has a silver lining…

    Besides, I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of people out there are either oblivious/dismissive of the effects of what they put into their body or don’t look at the information anyway. OK there may be people that genuinely can’t work out the current system that may be “helped” by this new one (to eat worse by the look of it) but I think people will put the red segments into their trolley anyway. I know I’ll be putting the red fat segments in my trolley, unless they’re attached to pork pies, as they’ll stay firmly on the shelf.

    One can only say so much before the pushback comes from those that are quite happy to sleepwalk their way to metabolic disaster and disease. I’ve managed to convert one guy at work to Paleo so far, so that’s one more healthy guy out there (he will be once he loses the excess 3 stone he’s packing due to beer and other carbs anyway).

    Keep pushing Zoe, I’m learning so much following your site and tweets. I’ve just got your Obesity Epidemic book (but have to read it when my wife’s not about). This and the other stuff I’ve got about Gut and Psycology Syndrome may well help me get a healthier gut and alleviate my autism too, which would be just grand.

  • This is what happens when govt goes where it has no business. The slippery slope will be to fine/punish businesses or people who violate these “standards” — we have the same problem in US with local govt mandating drink sizes. The problem is not the size, it is the attitude that govt knows best — despite having been so wrong for so long on so many issues.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.