Traffic lights and food labeling? Is this a joke? Not really….

by Naveen Agarwal

in Science of Food

Imagine driving through a busy intersection that has no traffic lights. Instead there are boards showing the driving rules in large print that you must read and quickly understand so you can pass through safely. And to make things worse, every intersection has different rules even though the boards look pretty much the same from a distance. It would be a disaster!

I think this is exactly the case with food labels. They all look the same but they pack a lot of information that you are supposed to digest (pun intended!) so you can make a healthy choice. And remember, all the bad stuff is usually hidden in the fine print on the label! Let us say your grocery cart on your weekly shopping trip has about 50 different items. Even if you spend just 1 minute trying to figure out the food label, it would take you almost an hour just to read and understand the information. Add to that all the walking through the aisles you need to do to get everything on your list, and you can be sure to spend your entire Saturday afternoon in the store. And if you have a screaming toddler trying to jump out of the cart, then simply forget it! You will likely look for the same items and brands every week without even looking at the label.

Traffic lights work because they are simple and easy to understand. The red-yellow-green lights have become a part of our nature. This leads to automatic action, which by habit and practice, is the correct action (in most cases, unless you are drunk!). So why not use the same idea and make the decision-making simple when it comes to food shopping?

I was really excited to learn that this is exactly what many supermarkets in the UK have started doing for their store brands. The standard nutrition label has not gone away, rather there is a simple color chart on the front panel of the package showing in red-amber-green, the levels of fat, saturated fat, salt and total sugars. We know that if we want to eat a healthy diet, one of the key things we should be doing is trying to cut down on fat (especially saturated fat), salt and added sugars. The message from the traffic light label is simple and clear – choose foods that show more “greens” than “reds” if you are trying to decide between two similar products.

One of the early adopters of the traffic light labeling system recommended by UK’s Food Standards Agency (similar to our FDA) was the Sainsbury supermarket chain, which now has nearly 5000 of its own branded food products showing this front-of-pack multiple traffic light (MTL) nutritional labeling. Even better, they have now developed a new ‘Just for Kids’ multiple traffic light labelingspecifically for the nutritional requirements of children.  This is based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) for 4-6 year olds. Not surprisingly, the consumer response has been overwhelmingly positive. In a recent survey, 92% of the customers found the MTL labeling easy to understand and 54% felt that MTL labeling, rather than the corresponding GDA approach, gave the“best at-a-glance indication of the healthiness of the food”. In another survey, they found that out of those aware of the MTL labeling, 57% said the symbol has helped them eat more healthy, with 17% saying it helped them eat ‘a lot more’ healthy. Clearly, the system works for most consumers.

Not everyone is equally excited of course. I was browsing through the comments on a blog post by Andrew Wadge of the FSA on this topic. Some find it too simplistic and arbitrary. Others see it as a tool to pressure the food industry to adopt a new labeling requirement. One particularly interesting criticism was that the color coding system does not work for color blind people!

Surely, this cannot be a substitute for the detailed nutrition information label. In addition to avoiding the bad stuff, we need to also look for the good stuff like proteins, vitamins and minerals. Still, I think that such a system, if adopted by the food companies here at home, could make life easier for us busy people. What do you think?

Here are a few links if you want to learn more:

  1. A detailed overview on
  2. An article on food labels from FSA
  3. Sainsbury’s traffic light labeling system
  4. Traffic light label adopters in UK


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