Traffic light labelling

CHOICE wants the implemention of a system that helps the greatest number of consumers.
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  • Updated:15 Dec 2009

01.Traffic light labelling

Cheese on cracker with traffic light label

The issue

Read the full Front-of-Pack Food Labelling Report.

Nutrition information panels are required on most food labels in Australia so consumers can look past all the marketing claims on the label and find out how healthy a food really is. But it may be more helpful if nutrition information was displayed on the front of food labels in an easily understood format.

There are calls for Australia to follow the UK’s lead and introduce traffic light labelling that would award red, amber or green traffic lights to individual foods based on their total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content. A red light for saturated fat would mean the product was high in saturated fat, while a green light for sugar would indicate low sugar content.

Instead of using traffic lights, some manufacturers here and overseas have introduced an alternative ‘% daily intake’ or ‘%DI labelling system that indicates the extent to which one serve of a product meets the average adult’s daily requirement for a whole range of nutrients.

Having seen the developments overseas, our Food Regulation Ministerial Council is considering whether we need to introduce a front-of-pack labelling system in Australia and which system would be best. The West Australian and South Australian health ministers are among those pushing for traffic light labels to help consumers make healthier choices.

Our research

New research conducted jointly by CHOICE and a collaboration of public health groups, including the Cancer Council, shows that the industry-preferred %DI labels may not be as well understood as other systems. Ours is also the first publicly-available research assessing how well Australian consumers can use different types of front-of-pack labels. It doesn’t just ask consumers which scheme they prefer.

The 790 consumers in our survey initially thought, as industry-sponsored research has found, that a %DI labelling system would be the easier to use. But when we asked consumers to choose healthier foods using both the traffic light and %DI labelling systems, the results were very different — 81% of consumers correctly chose the healthier foods using the traffic light system while only 64% made the correct choice using the monochrome %DI scheme already on packs.

And while all shoppers could use the traffic light system, those from lower socioeconomic groups had more difficulty using the %DI system to make healthy choices than shoppers from higher socioeconomic groups.

What we want

If governments really want food labels that help Australians make healthier choices and reduce the impact that obesity and diet-related diseases have on our health system and economy, then they need to implement the system that helps the greatest number of consumers — not the one that causes the least offence to the food industry and its bottom line.

Based on the findings of our consumer research, CHOICE wants:

  • Traffic light labelling on total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content, and to be included on the front of food labels.
  • A mandatory, consistent front-of-pack labelling system on all packaged foods, rather than a number of different voluntary systems that is likely to confuse consumers rather than help them.

Currently, the industry-preferred %DI scheme is only voluntary but many food manufacturers like Kellogg and Nestle, and supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths are adopting it. But as our research shows, that doesn’t mean it’s best for consumers.

Traffic lights provide factual, ‘at a glance’ information to help shoppers quickly compare products which may appear identical or tout persuasive health claims. While the industry says that traffic lights are too simplistic, simple colour-coding is in fact its greatest virtue.

Should traffic light labelling be introduced it would complement, not replace additional back-of-pack information and the government's healthy eating advice. So Australians will still be taught the benefits fruit and vegetables and that an apple is a healthier choice than a packet of lollies.

What you can do

  • What do you think about nutrition labelling?
  • Do you think %DI is the most effective option for front-of-pack labelling?

Email us your thoughts

More information

Front-of-Pack Food Labelling (our research) 

CHOICE principles on a Simplified Nutrition Labelling System

UK traffic light label scheme 

Healthy signs (research by our sister company, Which?)

CHOICE Food for Kids  (demonstrates how traffic lights can help you choose healthier foods)



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