Traffic light labelling needs green light

New research shows traffic light labels help consumers make healthy choices.
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01.Traffic light labelling


Kellogg’s was the first manufacturer in Australia to use the % Daily Intake guide (%DI) on the front of cereal packets and now many manufacturers have started using it to inform consumers about the nutrition content of their products.

A colour-coded traffic lights system, first developed by the UK Food Standards Agency, has been suggested as a more useful tool for helping consumers to make healthier food choices. Until recently, no research had been conducted to compare the various systems and identify which one is better understood by Australian consumers.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council has been lauding research claiming that consumers love the %DI system, but new research conducted jointly by CHOICE and a collaboration of public health groups, including the Cancer Council, shows that it may not be as well understood as it needs to be.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2008 but is still a useful guide today.

Our research

The research, conducted in four different shopping centres in Sydney and Newcastle and covering a cross-section of socioeconomic groups, showed that although consumers believe the %DI guide to be the most helpful and user-friendly system, when asked to use it to correctly identify healthier foods, it failed to deliver.

Consumers were asked to compare three products using four different labelling options: the %DI guide, a colour-coded %DI guide, a traffic light system and a traffic light system with an overall rating.

The traffic light system ranks the total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt as high, medium or low and gives a red, amber or green light accordingly. The overall rating for the traffic light system gives an additional ‘coloured light’ for the overall healthiness of the product.

The %DI system is based on an average adult energy intake of 8700 kJ a day and tells you what percentage of your daily energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, and sodium requirements you’re getting from a serve of the food or drink. The colour-coded %DI system applies traffic light colours to the total fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium categories in the %DI system.

The results showed that while the majority of respondents thought that the colour-coded %DI system was the easiest to interpret, when asked to identify the healthier of two products within specific categories, consumers were better at picking the healthier product using the traffic light system. Significantly, consumers in lower socio-economic groups, which are known to have a greater prevalence of overweight and obesity, had more difficulty using the %DI system

While it’s encouraging to see the food industry trying to help us make good choices, it’s important that the system employed is as easily understood as possible. This research suggests that the traffic light system is the best way of presenting this information and helping consumers make healthier food choices.

For more information, read the report (PDF).

Confusing the system?

The joint CHOICE and Cancer Council front of pack labelling research has already got the food industry buzzing, with the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) accusing CHOICE of confusing the debate over food labelling. In reality, it’s just the opposite. We are calling for one mandatory food labelling system that helps the greatest number of consumers to make healthier choices.

The food industry’s % Daily Intake (%DI) Guide might already be on food labels but that doesn’t mean it’s the best system for consumers. That’s why the Australia New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council is considering all possible front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems – including traffic lights. So rather than confusing the debate, we’re working with public health experts like the Cancer Council to ensure that ministers put the health and interests of consumers before the interest of food manufacturers.

The AFGC also pointed to research that shows many consumers think the %DI system is easy to use and understand. Initially, consumers in our survey also thought a colour-coded %DI system would be the easier to use. But when we put different labelling systems to the test and asked consumers to choose healthier foods using traffic lights and %DI, the results were very different – 81% of consumers correctly chose the healthier foods using the traffic light system while only 64% of consumers made the correct choice using the %DI system.

It’s understandable that the AFGC want to protect a labelling system that they’ve already invested in but if governments really want food labels that help consumers to make healthy choices then they need to choose the system that helps the greatest number of consumers, not the one that causes least offence to the food industry.



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