Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now
  • Health & Medicine

Encouraging healthier diets: Traffic light labelling could get the go-ahead

by Chit Selvarajah | Analysis

16 August 2012

0 comments 0 comments

Traffic lights

Could ‘traffic light’ labelling system help shoppers buy healthier food?

We’re all familiar with the phrase “You are what you eat”, but in practice it’s often hard to know exactly what we’re eating, and how it might affect our health.

For example, many processed foods can have higher salt, sugar and fat than we realise, so might be better as a treat rather than a daily indulgence.

At the moment, there’s a huge variety of ways that food manufacturers provide information about the nutritional content of their products, which can be confusing for consumers trying to make healthy choices.

To try to make things easier, the Government has been running a public consultation on nutritional labelling – which we’ve contributed to – to find the best way of providing clear and consistent information on food packs.

In our submission to the consultation we’ve recommended that all manufacturers adopt a single “traffic light” system, showing the levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in each product. These would be colour coded red, amber and green and labelled high, medium and low, making it easy for people to see exactly what they’re getting.

This consultation is a great opportunity to bring in a scheme that will make it easier for people to make healthy choices about what they eat, and we’ve recommended what we think is the best approach.  And it’s absolutely vital because obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking, contributing to around one in twenty cancers.

Obesity and Cancer

A quarter of all people in England are classed as obese, and it’s a significant and growing health problem. Research shows that in 2010, 17,000 cancer cases were linked to excessive bodyweight, and for women it’s the second most significant cancer risk factor after smoking.

Obesity is linked with seven types of cancer, namely breast, bowel, womb, food pipe, pancreatic, kidney and gallbladder. In particular, over a third of all womb cancers are associated with being overweight.

While obesity is a problem, there’s more to eating a healthy diet than just keeping an eye on the calories. For example, eating more than six grammes of salt a day is linked to almost 1,700 cases of stomach cancer a year in the UK.

Obesity is a complex problem with few simple solutions. Ultimately, we all make our own choices about what we eat and what we do. But we all know that it can be hard to make healthy decisions – how many of us would plump for chocolate rather than fruit if given the choice?

Here’s where legislation can help us to think about the choices we make.

Of course, we’re not talking about laws restricting people’s freedom to choose what they want to eat – nobody wants to see cakes or crisps outlawed. But to tackle obesity effectively, we think that the Government needs to introduce measures that create an environment where healthy choices are easy choices, to empower people to make good decisions about what they eat.

Our view

A 'traffic light' food label

People say they find ‘guideline daily amounts’  (GDAs) confusing

Clear and consistent nutritional labelling is one part of this healthy environment. In our response to the food labelling consultation, we’ve asked that the Government recommends a ‘traffic light’ system for food labels, along with the words ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’, allowing people to make a quick assessment of the relative healthiness of contents of their shopping basket.

This approach is also supported by the Food Standards Agency, as well as a recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

A traffic light labelling system would also clear up some of the confusion caused by “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDAs), which are currently used on some food packs. A study in Australia showed that just under two thirds of people with a university-level education would use GDAs to guide their shopping, falling to around a third of people with only primary school education. This highlights one way that confusing or inconsistent food labelling might increase inequalities between different social groups. By contrast, traffic light labels work significantly better than non-coloured labels for everyone.

A nudge in the right direction

The Coalition Government has already expressed their support for ‘nudges’ – policies that produce positive change without restricting individual choice. By providing information in an accessible and easy-to-understand format, traffic light labelling can make people more aware of what they eat and encourage them to make healthier decisions.

But part of the challenge with eating healthy is the lack of choice. Evidence from Sainsbury’s supermarket shows that 60 per cent of its customers actively look for traffic light labels when they shop, and four out of five are influenced by them when deciding what to buy.

More informed consumers might also mean more responsible manufacturers, eager to reduce the number of ‘red lights’ on the front of packs by creating healthier products. Consistent use of traffic light labelling could help to increase the range of healthy products available for shoppers. And more effective labelling might also foster a culture shift, where more people take greater care and interest in what they eat.

The full health benefits of extending traffic light labelling are still to be discovered. But a 2006 regulatory impact assessment examining the introduction of nutrition labelling on the front of food packs found that 18,000 lives could be saved in the UK every year if the nation’s intake of salt, saturated fat and sugar intake were brought down to ideal levels.

Obesity is a massive challenge for those of us who care about the nation’s health. Although our interest is in cutting the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer, reducing obesity will also help tackle other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Although traffic light labelling is a small change, it could have wide-ranging health benefits, and we hope to see it adopted in the UK soon.


  • Chit Selvarajah is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK