Traffic lights for a healthier diet

September 26, 2013 by The Co-operative Food traffic-light

Using the traffic light system can help you quickly make decisions and compare your foods in the supermarket aisles.

For years now there have been various designs of front-of-pack nutrition symbols on a lot of the foods on the supermarket shelves. They’re designed to make it easier to decide which is the healthier product to buy, and they give us a useful ‘at a glance’ guide to the main things we need to be aware of, like fats, especially saturated fats, sugars, and salt.

The Co-operative led the way with this signposting back in 1995 and we have made several improvements since then. Most recently we have updated the traffic lights to include the energy in the product, given in both kilojoules and kilocalories (or just plain calories as most of us call them) and as a percentage of your reference intake. Fortunately, due to a new piece of European legislation and a Government initiative, the major supermarkets have all agreed to use the same system, so over the next year you’ll begin to see consistency and be able to make comparisons between products wherever you shop.

What does all that mean? At first glance the traffic lights may seem a little daunting, in particular if some of them are red. All you need to do is familiarise yourself with what each means and you’ll soon be able to make decisions quickly, and possibly without even pausing to read each in detail.
Red means that a product is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt. You should try to keep an eye on how often you choose these foods, or eat them in smaller quantities. Eating fewer reds will help you achieve a healthier diet.
Amber means the food has average levels of nutrients. Foods with ambers help you balance your diet, just try to include a few green ones too.
Green means the food is low in that nutrient and the more green lights, the healthier your choice.
What are the numbers based on? Each traffic light gives you the amount in grams a serving will provide as well as a percentage figure which shows the contribution the product will make to the ideal maximum daily consumption of that particular element, whether it be salt, sugar, fat, or saturated fat. These are based on the government’s recommendation for an average woman, taking an average amount of exercise – so in terms of calories it’s based on 2000 calories a day. This is the same as 8400 kilojoules.

Of course each of us is different, and a sportsman is likely to need far more calories to retain his form and weight than someone who doesn’t get a lot of exercise.

The colour codes are there to quickly alert you to whether a product is high, medium or low in key nutrients that you need to be aware of. That doesn’t mean you should avoid that product, but you should certainly avoid having too many reds in your diet. You should also aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help maintain a healthy diet.

I’m trying to count my calories, how does this help? Although there are many seemingly amazing weight loss schemes out there, if you’re carrying too much weight your doctor is most likely to recommend that you reduce your calorie intake and take regular exercise. The front of pack traffic lights include the calorie content of your food as well. This information is provided as kilocalories (Kcal) and kilojoules (kJ) for each serving, for example each biscuit in a packet of biscuits, and it is also given per 100g of food. Guidelines suggest that a typical woman only needs 2000 calories a day, and an average man 2500 calories per day. If you consume less than you are using each day you will lose weight – but take it easy, and take advice from your doctor.

Can I eat foods with red traffic lights? Many foods with traffic light colours will have a mixture of red, amber and greens. When you are choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers and fewer reds, to help you eat a healthier diet. A treat like chocolate is likely to have high sugars, and high fat per 100g, so aim to eat only a small amount occasionally. What you need to be most aware of is the number of reds on foods you eat regularly – so while a pizza is great now and then, you might not want to just eat pizza every day!

What does Reference Intake mean? You will start to see Reference Intake (RI) appearing on packaging and in the details about the make up of foods. In the past this was referred to as GDA or guideline daily amounts. This is simply a guide to how many calories, or how much sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat are required for a healthier diet. Although everybody is different, you should aim to meet the RI for energy and treat the RIs for fat, saturates, sugars and salt as daily maximums. There is no RI for fibre, but general advice is to aim to consume 24g a day. The quantity of fibre in the food is given as part of the nutrition table on the back of pack. On The Co-operative’s labels, Reference Intake is expressed as a percentage as you’ll see on the illustration.

The new traffic light system is clearer and gives more information than its predecessor. It’s also going to be consistent across the major supermarkets. It should make shopping easier and faster as it shows you at-a-glance if the food you are thinking about buying has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, helping you get a better balance. The labelling from The Co-operative is clear, and big too, so if you’ve forgotten your glasses you should still be able to decide what to buy without too much of a squint! Use the traffic lights on our foods to help you towards a healthier balanced diet, but don’t forget to get some exercise too.


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