New traffic-light food labels get go-ahead

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday October 24 2012

The system will use colour-coded visuals

Much of the TV, radio, and print media have reported on a Government announcement of plans to introduce a consistent system of food labelling.

The Daily Mail says that it is part of a ‘government obesity drive’  and a ‘war on big portions’.


Why is this happening?

According to the press release issued today, the UK has the largest number of products with front-of-pack labels in Europe, but research has shown that consumers get confused by them.

Announcing the scheme, health minister Anna Soubry said: ‘By having a consistent system we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food. This will help us all choose healthier options and control our calorie intake.’


How will the system work?

The system will be based on the so-called ‘traffic-light system’, where colour-coded information (green for low levels, yellow for medium levels, and red for high levels), are provided for the following:

  • fat – including saturated fats
  • salt
  • sugar
  • calorie content

While many manufacturers already use a variant of this system, they often make use of different colour schemes and visual styles. This can cause confusion for some consumers.

A 2011 study concluded that ‘the existence of multiple front-of-pack label formats in the marketplace may impede consumer comprehension and discourage use’.


Will all foods have to have traffic light labels?

No. There are media reports of sources from the Department of Health explaining that a mandatory system would require agreement at the European level. However, those involved with the project are confident that all major food manufacturers and retailers will come on-board.


When will traffic-light labelled foods be on the shelves?

The new labelling system is expected to be introduced during the summer of 2013.


Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

New food labelling system introduced. The Daily Telegraph, October 24 2012

Food labelling: Consistent system 'to start next year'. BBC News, October 24 2012

New food labelling system agreed. ITN News, October 24 2012

Obesity: New food labelling system planned. Sky News, October 24 2012

New food labelling system to come into force to tackle obesity. Metro, October 24 2012

Further reading

Department of Health. Hybrid system for food labelling given green light. Published online October 24 2012

Draper AK, Adamson AJ, Clegg S, et al.  Front-of-pack nutrition labelling: are multiple formats a problem for consumers? European Journal of Public Health. Published online Decemebr 2 2011


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