Traffic light labels: 'not the answer to obesity'

By Clare Cheney

- Last updated on GMT

Clare Cheney gives traffic light labels the red light
Clare Cheney gives traffic light labels the red light
Now that common sense has been confirmed by a consumer survey that traffic light labelling is confusing and misleading, maybe the Department of Health (DH) should sit up, take stock and review its strategy on healthy eating

According to the research commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), a whopping 67% of consumers thought that products with red traffic lights for all ‘unhealthy’ nutrients was a warning to avoid consumption.

All new government campaigns should be required to pass the common sense litmus test before being unleashed. In this case, for example, if the survey had been conducted before the campaign was launched it is likely that the results would have been the same as those of the CIM.

Ignoring the facts

But, as we all know, governments of all persuasions are renowned for ignoring the facts if they don’t support their policies, so better in their view not to have a survey which might come up with the wrong result in advance.

Traffic light labelling is useful for consumers who understand how to use it but these are in the minority. So, overall, the initiative is unhelpful and potentially detrimental, particularly when you bear in mind that more than half of those surveyed thought they should restrict themselves to products with all green lights.

Such a diet could lead to malnutrition due to lack of essential nutrients in many foods with red lights, such as cheese.

For the past 30 years or so, new food labelling was seen by governments and consumer organisations as the panacea for many food issues because label changes are visible and ‘proof’ that something had been done. It is much more difficult and takes longer to gauge whether other approaches, such as education, have been effective in meeting the desired objectives.

Do the work for the consumer

The DH’s Public Health Responsibility Deal has just released a ‘development tool’ for calorie reduction. This is another example of the government trying to get the food industry to do the work for consumers – in this case, reducing calorie intakes from diets, regardless of their composition; whether they are unhealthy and whether consumers are already overweight.

The government will believe it has succeeded if the overall calories in food produced by the industry are significantly reduced by several billion. But this continues to avoid the need for consumers to take some responsibility for their own diets. If overall calories are reduced, consumers may take it as a green light to eat more than they should.

Meanwhile, the Food Manufacture Group is staging a free, one-hour webinar on obesity to take place at 11am on Thursday July 3.

The online seminar – Obesity and health: the big fat, sugar and salt debate – will offer an independent perspective on how these controversial topics affect the UK food and drink industry and how food and drink manufacturers can help to remedy the crisis.

Reserve your free place at the webinar – organised in association with the Institute of Food Science and Technololgy – by emailing​. 

  • Clare Cheney is the director general of the Provision Trade Federation.

Related topics: Labelling, Policy

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