How traffic light labeling works - foodwatch

The idea is compelling: a well-designed graphic on the front of food packages could give consumers quick and clear information about key nutrients and help them compare products at-a-glance. This is exactly what traffic light labelling achieves.

For every product the absolute amounts of key nutrients (fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt) are given in grams per 100 grams or 100 millilitres, as a uniform reference value. To help consumers interpret this information, each of the four values is marked with one of the well-known traffic light colours, red, amber or green, depending on whether the product contains high, medium or low levels of the respective nutrient. This makes the information as simple as possible, with no unnecessary complexity.

But when does a traffic light value change from green to amber, or from amber to red? foodwatch bases its colour-coding system on the UK model that was proposed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2007. 

The original UK model

The criteria originally used by the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) for its traffic light colour-coding were developed on the basis of comprehensive scientific studies and consultations. In addition to its own research, the FSA factored in expert opinions from numerous consumer groups, food manufacturers and retailers. foodwatch still uses these original FSA criteria for classifying fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt levels as low (green), medium (amber) or high (red). The reference value is 100 grams, or 100 millilitres for drinks.

Criteria for the colour coding of nutrient levels in food (not including drinks)

per 100 grams low (green) medium (amber) high (red)
fat up to 3,0 grams more than 3,0 up to 20,0 grams more than 20,0 grams
saturates up to 1,5 grams more than 1,5 up to 5,0 grams more than 5,0 grams
sugar up to 5,0 grams more than 5,0 up to 12,5 grams more than 12,5 grams
salt up to 0,3 grams more than 0,3 up to 1,5 grams more than 1,5 grams

Criteria for the colour coding of nutrient levels in drinks

per 100 millilitre low (green) medium (amber) high (red)
fat up to 1,5 grams more than 1,5 up to 10,0 grams more than 10,0 grams
saturates up to 0,75 grams more than 0,75 up to 2,5 grams more than 2,5 grams
sugar up to 2,5 grams more than 2,5 up to 6,3 grams more than 6,3 grams
salt up to 0,3 grams more than 0,3 up to 1,5 grams more than 1,5 grams

The British traffic light label today

Owing to pressure from the food lobby and new legal requirements from the EU, the colour-coding criteria for the British traffic light label have been changed repeatedly since 2007. The traffic-light label that is being used on a voluntary basis in the UK by several manufacturers and food retailers today is a far cry from the original model. Click here to read how the British traffic-light label has been watered down by the food lobby.