Traffic Lights

Needing Your Glasses at the Supermarket (or finding nutritional information on packaging….)

Front of Packaging – Traffic Lights

The traffic light system has been devised by the Department of Health to help the consumer make healthier choices quickly and easily. It’s simple and most people don’t need to squint at the package to figure out what the colours are saying.

RED means HIGH in fat, sugars and salt. It is fine to eat this food occasionally or as a treat AMBER means MEDIUM making it an OK choice most of the time GREEN means LOW which makes it a healthier choice all of the time

The colours on the front of pack show you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, helping you achieve a more balanced diet.

If you see a RED on the front of the pack, it does not mean that you should not eat it, but that you should keep an eye on how often you choose these foods, or how much of them you eat. It’s not ideal if you glance in your trolley and see a congested traffic system of red lights.

AMBER means that these foods are neither high nor low for that nutrient. In theory, foods with amber lights help you balance your diet.

GREEN means the food is low in that specific nutrient. The more green colours, the healthier the choice.

Most foods will have a mixture of red, amber and greens. So, when choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens, fewer ambers, and less reds.

At the bottom of each “light” is a percentage figure. This represents how much of a daily recommendation for that nutrient is contained in the product. For example, 50% RI of salt means that the serving contains half of an average adult’s maximum daily intake for salt and so you should try to choose options lower in salt for the rest of the day. They also enable you make more accurate comparisons between equal portions of products which have the same colour.

This system isn’t perfect though, and there are caveats:

  1. The portion size is important. Check that the manufacturer’s idea of a portion is the same as yours. If a biscuit comes in as amber but you’re going to eat half a packet then the traffic light system may need revising to include speeding cameras.
  2. Certain foods will naturally be higher in certain macronutrients. Oily fish and seeds for example will always be high fat, this does not mean that salmon, for example, is an unhealthy choice as the majority of the fat is Omega 3 and essential for health.
  3. 3. Looking at the table below we can see how the colours are broken down by nutrient. Considering sugar, the recommended daily intake is 30g yet a product can be amber with 22g. Just one and a half of whatever-this-product-is will unwittingly take you over the recommended amount into the red zone.

Back of Packaging - Nutrition Tables

Us food-geeks disregard the traffic lights and turn straight to the small print at the back. These tables are more detailed and allow for direct comparison between different products. This does mean that you end up reading more in an average weekly shop than you might do in the local library but it also lets you make a like-for-like comparison between supermarket and brand-name products.

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By Saffron Rogerson

13 June 2017