Our Nutritionist, Rory Larkin, Provides a Guide to Traffic Light Labelling.

There are several different terms for nutrition labelling – front of pack labelling, traffic lights, guideline daily amounts (GDAs) or reference intakes (RIs). Sometimes it can be confusing so hopefully this article will make it simple to understand.

Since 13th December 2016 it has been a legal requirement for most pre-packaged foods to have nutrition labelling, however, this excludes ‘loose’ foods, made on site. Within CH&Co Group we are seeing more and more customers ask for the nutritional information of our products, so this is something we are starting to do across some of our business.

Nutritional info on the front of pack (FoP) or back of pack (BoP) must be shown ‘per 100g/ml’ or ‘per portion’, and cover ALL of the following:

  1. Energy – as kilojoules (KJ) and usually in Calories (kcal)
  2. Total fat – as grams (including saturated, mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated and transfats).
  3. Saturated fat – as grams.
  4. Sugar – as grams, this shows total sugar content (eg glucose, sucrose, lactose (milk sugar), honey, treacle, molasses as well as all fructose (fruit sugars) found in fruit and fruit juices).
  5. Salt – as milligrams (mg) and sometimes shown as Sodium. Salt = Sodium x 2.5.

Reference intakes

The Reference intakes (RIs) are a set of recommended nutrient and energy intakes for the average population. They are not targets to try to achieve, but more of an approximate target required for a healthy balanced diet. The RIs used to be called the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) and some retailers and manufactures like to display how their food rates against these on the FoP label, the most common form being the ‘traffic lights’ system.
The RIs for each of the four nutrients are:

  • Energy = 8,400 (KJ) or 2000 (kcal)
  • Total Fat = 70g
  • Saturates = 20g
  • Sugars = 90g
  • Salt = 6g

Can we describe food as ‘low fat’?

There is a set of standards that food has to meet to be classed as ‘low’ in anything. The ‘score’ of a particular nutrient determines whether it is Green (Low), Amber (Medium) or Red (High). Unless it achieves these standards it is illegal to call something ‘low fat’ etc.

Food

Total Fat
Low = 3g per 100g
High = 17.5g per 100g or ->21g per portion
Saturated fat
Low = 1.5g per 100g
High = 5g per 100g or ->6.0g per portion
Sugar
Low = <-5g per 100g
High = 22.5g per 100g or ->27g per portion
Salt
Low = 0.3g per 100g (or 0.1g of sodium)
High = ->1.5g per 100g (or 0.6g sodium) or ->1.8g of salt per portion (or 0.7g sodium)

Drinks

Total Fat
Low = 1.5g per 100ml
High = 8.75g per 100g or >10.5g per portion
Saturated fat
Low = 0.75g per 100ml
High = 2.5g per 100ml or >3.0g per portion
Sugar
Low = <-2.5g per 100ml
High = 11.25g per 100g or ->13.5g per portion
Salt
Low = 0.3g per 100ml (or 0.1g of sodium)
High = ->0.75g per 100ml (or 0.3g sodium) or ->0.9g
of salt per portion (or 0.35g sodium).

Some retailers and manufactures will use a range of colours (red, amber and green), the percentage of our GDA, or the words High, Medium or Low on the FoP label to help give consumers a better idea about the nutritional value of the item. The FoP labelling however is just a guideline of what quantities thereof should be included in the average diet.

  • Nutrients marked green in colour or ‘low’ means that product is low in one of the four key measurements (fats, sat fats, sugar, salt), either per 100g/ml or per portion. The more ‘greens’ on display can illustrate that the food is a healthier choice and these should be the most commonly eaten.
  • Nutrients marked amber in colour or ‘medium’ score mid-range in the four nutrients and represent what a balanced or average diet could look like.
  • Nutrients marked red in colour or ‘high’ should make up the smallest part of the diet. They should not be avoided outright, just ensure they are not appearing too often.

In nature, however, foods do not come colour coded for nutrition and there are real limitations with the traffic light system. The RIs do not distinguish between intrinsic sugar (found in whole fruit, vegetables and milk) and added sugar (sweets, cakes, syrups, fruit juice). The problem with this is that it can make perfectly healthy and natural food appear unhealthy. See what a large banana looks like with traffic light labelling here…
Traffic light blog post graph 0

Traffic light labelling can make food that is perfectly healthy also look bad for fat content. Here is how large avocado would score for instance…

Traffic light blog post graph 1

Manufactures can also use traffic lights to work for them, rather than against. For example, most diet soft drinks will look like this.

Traffic light blog post graph 2

So you can see how misleading traffic lights can be if we think that all green is automatically ‘good’ and all red is automatically ‘bad’.

For this reason and others, some manufacturers choose not to display colours or ‘high/low’ and instead just show the energy plus the four nutrients in uncoloured boxes. There is also the option of using %RIs on the FoP which can be a less misleading way to show customers which product is right for them.