Pressure mounting for mandatory traffic light labels in UK

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Consumer watchdog calls for traffic light labels
Consumer watchdog calls for traffic light labels
Calls for the introduction of mandatory front-of-pack traffic light labelling to be introduced in the UK continue to gain momentum as consumer group Which? issues a fresh report highlighting sugar in breakfast cereals.

Consumer group Which? is called for traffic light labelling to be made mandatory after Brexit as it releases the results of an investigation into ‘adult’ breakfast cereals today (20 June).

The report revealed “inconsistent packaging information”​ on branded cereals and campaigners at Which? stressed this risks misleading shoppers about how much sugar, salt and fat they are consuming.

Cereal offenders 

Of all the cereals and porridges it looked at, Which? found that Kellogg’s Frosties and Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes contained the most sugar per 100g, with a whopping 37g and 35g each - around the same amount of sugar per 100g as Burton’s Wagon Wheels.

Which? said that while many own-brand supermarket cereals have adopted the UK’s voluntary traffic light labelling scheme household names including Kellogg are “lagging behind”​.

A ‘bewildering range of information’

Which? reviewed the labelling on a range of cereals, porridges and granolas and found some could contain more than three-quarters of the recommended daily maximum of free sugars in a single portion. The consumer watchdog stressed the “true​” sugar level was not always reflected on packaging and said that a lack of standard definitions meant it was difficult for consumers to compare cereals on a like-for-like basis.

“It is clear that the current, non-standardised food labelling system is at best confusing and at worst misleading,”​ Alex Neill, Which? managing director of home products and services, said. “Helping people to compare at a glance how much sugar, salt and fat a product contains has proven to be an effective way of helping them to make healthier food choices.” 

Puzzling portion sizes 

Which noted that since 2010, Dorset Cereals has reduced its portion sizes from between 60 g and 75 g to 45 g on both its Simply Delicious and Simply Fruity mueslis. The group said this could lead people to believe there is less sugar than before when the only difference is the portion size. 

Kellogg’s front of pack labelling gives per portion nutritional information for the cereal alone but Nestle includes the cereal plus a 125ml of semi-skimmed milk. As a result, Nestle cereals look like they contain comparatively more sugar and fat, the consumer advocate argued.

Disparities flagged by Which? included companies using different portion sizes on their packaging and even the application of “outdated”​ RDA guidance. Nestle, the group noted, also included milk in its nutritional information – meaning that nutritional data on its packaging suggested an inflated level of fat or sugar compared to manufacturers who do not factor milk into their calculations.

“Which? believes consumers would be far better served if all manufacturers used the traffic light nutrition labelling scheme, which shows whether levels of sugar, salt and fat are high, medium or low using red, amber and green traffic light colours - and is based on the amount per 100g. This would make it easier to compare across products, regardless of the portion size suggested,”​ the consumer advocates said.

Which? characterised Brexit as an opportunity for the UK government to make traffic light labelling compulsory as it breaks ties with EU labelling regulations.

“The government must not miss this opportunity to use Brexit to make traffic light labelling a legal requirement, so consumers finally have clear information to make better and more informed choices,”​ Neill insisted.

Outdated guidance

Which? flagged the use of “outdated​” RDA guidance by some cereal makers.

An 82 g pot of Mornflake Golden Syrup Top Porridge states it makes up a quarter (26%) of the recommended daily sugar allowance. But this is based on old government guidance which advised that adults and children over 11 could consume up to 90 g of free sugars per day. The advice was changed in 2015, with the recommended maximum daily sugar intake slashed to 30 g. 
Which? attributed this “confusion​” to the EU’s Food Information Regulations which do not reflect the new UK guidance.

Industry defends record

Representatives of the food sector were quick to defend their record on labelling transparency.

A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation, which represents UK food makers, told FoodNavigator that there is a legal requirement to provide nutritional information and stressed that many companies go beyond this on a voluntary basis.

“Companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food, and ingredients lists and nutrition information per 100 grams are both provided on pack. The vast majority of companies go beyond this legal obligation to voluntarily provide clear, simple nutrition information front of pack usually based on what are commended portion would contain. Front of pack labels help consumers make informed purchasing decisions by enabling individuals to quickly check, compare and choose between similar products,”​ the spokesperson insisted.

Kellogg – which was singled out in the report for producing some of the most high-sugar cereals – said that the company is playing a role in assisting people in their nutritional choices. It is also making progress on efforts to reformulate its cereals, a spokesperson said.

A spokesperson from Kellogg’s UK and Ireland, said: “We recognise we have a role to play in helping people make healthier choices. That is why at the end of last year we announced our most ambitious plan to overhaul our cereals, including a 40% reduction in the amount of sugar in Coco Pops, taking high sugar Riccicles off supermarket shelves and launching a range of vegan, organic and no-added sugar granolas.

“We know there is more we can do which is why we are always looking at ways of giving people more of what they want in our cereals, like wholegrain and fibre, and less of what they don’t like sugar and artificial preservatives.”

Meanwhile, Nestle – which has already adopted traffic light labelling – acknowledged the importance of providing clear, consistent information to consumers. “We want to help people make informed choices about their food by providing clear nutritional information on pack. Nestle’s wholly owned products, as well as Nestle Cereals, sold in the UK follow the UK government’s voluntary, colour-coded front of pack labelling scheme,”​ a spokesperson said.

Nestle UK has also embarked on an extensive reformulation initiative to cut sugar levels across its portfolio. Compared with 2003 levels, Nestlé Breakfast cereals sold in 2017 contained 508 million fewer teaspoons of sugar. Since 2010, the group has reduced average sugar content across our cereals by 15% and we will reduce it by a further 10% by the end of 2018.

The report follows a survey from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) which found 40% of British adults find it difficult to source reliable information on healthy diets.

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