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Food label; understanding the traffic light system

A food label is used to provide the customer with information about the food they buy, highlighting what foods are more nutritious than others. As part of the government scheme, a combination of colour coding (traffic lights) and nutritional information is used to show whether a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugars, known as the traffic light system. It can also be used to show how much energy (calories and kilojoules) your food contains. This can help you make comparisons between foods to allow you to make healthier choices.

What are the guidelines for high, medium, and low on a front-of-pack label?

The table below shows how high, medium, and low levels of fat, saturates, total sugars and salt in foods are classified for front of pack labels (there are different levels for drinks). These levels have been decided by the UK government. The ‘per portion’ in red is used where portions are 250g or more.

Source: nutrition.org.uk

The food label also shows the amount of nutrients in a portion of the food or drink and the percentage of your reference intake (RI) a portion of the product provides. In some cases, where there isn’t much room on the label, just energy values will be displayed but the full nutrition information will be available on the back of the pack.

Reference Intakes (RIs) has replaced Guideline Daily Amounts, which used to appear on food labels. These have been set by European law. RIs are not nutritional targets for people to consume, as they are often for nutrients that we consume too much of like saturates or sugars, but more of a guideline or benchmark to help you make healthy dietary choices and balance your daily intake. The RI is shown in percentages and provides information on how the amount of fat, saturates, sugars and salts within that product fits into your daily recommended diet.

You may notice that there isn’t an RI for fibre; this doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Most people in the UK need to eat more fibre – 30g each day to be exact. Fibre can still be included in food labels on the back of packs, and you may see labels like ‘source of fibre’ or ‘high in fibre’ on foods that include high levels. Find out more about fibre here.

Based on the below statistics from IGD, there is still further work to be done to help people understand food labels and their recommended nutrition intake:

  • 58% of shoppers have looked at front-of-pack nutrition labels in the past three months. More claim to have looked at health claims since last year.
  • 79% of shoppers claim to understand calorie information on front of pack; that’s up from 76% a year earlier.
  • 45% of shoppers say they understand what the term ‘reference intake’ means. There is no evidence of that figure improving.
  • 40% of shoppers understand the traffic light coding has been set by the government. Many believe it has been set by supermarkets and suppliers.

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Published on November 21st, 2022

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