Traffic light labels on food should become mandatory after Brexit, according to campaigners.
The labelling scheme shows whether levels of sugar, salt and fat are high, medium or low using red, amber and green traffic light colours respectively. It is based on the amount per 100g.
Under EU law the UK’s system is not mandatory (in fact, some member states have openly criticised it).
Nevertheless, many UK supermarkets display the information on their own products – and there are studies showing that it is helping (some) consumers make (some) healthier choices. Research published earlier this month by the British Nutrition Foundation found that 61% of people “always or often” check nutrition labels on food.
However, many large manufacturers haven’t adopted the labels, instead preferring a hotchpotch of different ones that has left shoppers bewildered.
The consumer group, Which?, studied a range of cereals, porridges and granolas and found that some contained more than three-quarters of the recommended daily maximum of free sugars in a portion.
The researchers also discovered that the “true” sugar level is often not reflected on the packaging. There is also no consistency in portion sizes, with some firms even including the milk in the nutritional information.
Some brands also seem to have changed their labels to make them appear healthier. Since 2010, Dorset Cereals has reduced its portion sizes from between 60g and 75g to 45g on both its Simply Delicious and Simply Fruity mueslis, which “may lead people to believe there is less sugar than before when in fact it is the portion size that has shrunk”, Which? noted.
Other manufacturers appear to be as confused as their customers about the information on their packs.
The label on an 82g pot of Mornflake Golden Syrup Top Porridge states it makes up a quarter (26%) of the daily sugar allowance. However, this is based on old government guidance, which advised that adults and children over 11 could consume up to 90g of free sugars a day. The advice was changed in 2015, with the recommended maximum daily sugar intake slashed to 30g, which means the product actually contains 78% of the recommended daily allowance of free sugars.
Which? said the confusion arises because the EU’s Food Information Regulations do not reflect the new UK guidance. Manufacturers are therefore legally obliged to base the nutritional information on their packaging on the outdated European guidance.
Which? therefore called on the government to use the UK’s split from the EU to introduce legislation that makes traffic light labelling mandatory.
The current, non-standardised food labelling system is “at best confusing and at worst misleading”, said Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services at Which?. “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.”
The Prime Minister Theresa May has previously suggested she’d be open to the idea of clearer on-pack nutritional labels. More details could be included in the revised childhood obesity plan, set to be published later this summer.