Front of Pack “traffic lights” nutrition labelling adopted across the UK
Submitting InstitutionNewcastle University
Unit of AssessmentAllied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy
Summary Impact TypeHealth
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Nutrition and Dietetics, Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
One solution proposed to contribute to the resolution of the current UK
obesity crisis has been to provide clear, visible and easily understood
nutritional information to help consumers make informed decisions when
purchasing food. Newcastle research provided two insights: first that
consumers found it hard to interpret multiple versions of nutritional
labels, and secondly that the label with the highest overall comprehension
included traffic light colouring, Guideline Daily Amounts and the words
"low", "med" and "high" to aid decision making. This information was used
by the Department of Health in their approval of a new, consistent food
labelling in June 2013. This system has now been adopted by major
manufacturers including MARS, Nestlé UK, PepsiCo UK and Premier Foods, and
retailers including Sainsbury's, Tesco, ASDA, Morrisons, The Co-operative
Food and Waitrose.
Newcastle research staff
Professors John Mathers (Professor of Human Nutrition 1983 to date), and
Rugg-Gunn (Professor at Newcastle 1988-2001) were investigators with
Adamson (Lecturer 1998-1999, Senior Lecturer 2005-2006, Professor of
Public Health Nutrition 2009 to date) on the `Family Food and Health'
Project funded by MAFF/FSA. This work led to the publication of R1 and
contributed to work included in R2. The Wellcome Trust-funded ASH30 study
`Does diet `track' from childhood to adulthood?` led to R3.
Background of Newcastle research into food choice
Professor Ashley Adamson at Newcastle University has a long track record
of research into food choice by consumers, and its importance in
addressing diet-related disease. An early study (R1) identified factors
influencing consumer food choice regarding starchy foods in families. The
study found a lack of nutritional knowledge; for example 15% of adults
believed starchy foods to be "fattening", and that there was no
relationship between the perceived healthiness of the family diet and the
relative contribution of energy by starch, fats and sugars. This indicated
the need for objective, clear information on the nutritional content of
food. A later study (R2) stated that addressing food choice by an
individual, and the environment that surrounds that choice, is key to
reversing current trends in diet-related disease. The study concluded with
the importance of addressing the context of food choice and the importance
of policy that addresses the individual and their access to appropriate
food choices. Thirdly, a 2006 article (R3) investigating food shopping
habits amongst adults in their 30s identified that even in this younger
age group food shopping was carried out largely by women, regardless of
presence or absence of children in the home, and that women were more
health conscious than men, with implications for health educators and
policy planners in targeting of messages.
Newcastle's role in development of the Food Standard Agency report
In 2006, Professor Adamson was invited by the joint Department of Health
(DH) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) Nutrition Strategy Steering Group to
join an Independent Project Management Panel to develop a consistent
front-of-pack food labelling system. The Food Information and Promotions
Manager at the DH confirmed that two factors contributed to Professor
Adamson's selection: the first her "independence from any associated
manufacturer or retailer" and the second her "wealth of
experience and expertise in the area of food choice, represented by such
- Lake et al... British Food Journal 2006 [R1]
Adamson et al... Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2004 [R2]
Adamson et al... Nutrition & Food Science 2000
The project management panel oversaw a research study commissioned by the
UK Food Standards Agency in 2008 to investigate how consumers interpret
different systems of food labelling (R4). Professor Adamson worked with
the panel and the FSA to manage the project, formulate the tender for the
research and also contributed quantitative analysis and project
management. The Food Information and Promotions Manager at the DH
confirmed that Professor Adamson "brought unique insights to the panel
that informed experimental design. Your contributions to the analysis of
project findings subsequently formed a key part of the publication of
the 2009 FSA report 'Comprehension and use of UK nutrition signpost
labelling schemes report' [R4]" (EV a).
This 2009 report specifically investigated public opinion regarding
front-of-pack (FOP) food labelling, with the aim of identifying which
scheme was easiest to interpret in terms of conveying key nutritional
information, to allow consumers to make informed choices. The report
addressed three main questions:
- How well do individual signpost schemes (or elements of the schemes)
enable consumers to correctly interpret levels of key nutrients?
- How do consumers use FOP labels in real life contexts in the retail
environment and at home?
- How does the coexistence of a range of FOP label formats affect
accurate interpretation of FOP labels?
The first main finding was that two labels achieved highest overall
comprehension: the first combining text ("high", "medium" or "low"),
traffic light colours and contribution to Reference Intake (RI) or
Guideline Daily Amount; and the second, text and traffic light colours.
However, inclusion of RI figures allows consumers to determine the level
of individual nutrients. The second major finding was that a range of FOP
label format leads to difficulty for consumers in understanding the
product's nutritional value, and that a single, standard, format would
increase comprehension and use of FOP labels.
The 2013 article (R5), which expanded on this report, presented evidence
that multiple front-of-pack designs are confusing and require persistence
on the part of the consumer to assess the healthiness of product, and
secondly that consumers fared better with a common element to the design.
The conclusion was that consistent, standardised labelling would
facilitate healthier food choices by increasing understanding and wider
use by promotion of one format to consumers.
References to the research
(Scopus citation data at as 31.7.13, Newcastle researchers in bold)
R1. Adamson A, Curtis P, Loughridge J, Rugg-Gunn A, Spendiff A,
Mathers J. A family-based intervention to increase consumption of
starchy foods. Nutrition & Food Science 2000, 30:19-23.
Citation count unavailable in Scopus.
R2. Adamson AJ, Mathers JC. Effecting dietary change. Proceedings
of the Nutrition Society. 2004, 63(4), 537-547. Citation count 19.
R3. Lake AA, Hyland RM, Mathers JC, Rugg-Gunn AJ, Wood CE, Adamson
AJ. Food shopping and preparation among the 30-somethings: whose job
is it? (The ASH30 study). British Food Journal. 2006, 108(6),
475-486. Citation count: 19
R5. Front of Pack nutrition labelling: are multiple formats a problem for
consumers? (2013, e-published 2011 ahead of hard copy). Draper AK, Adamson
AJ, Clegg S, Malam S, Rigg M, Duncan S. European Journal of
Public Health. 23(3):517-21. This new article is yet to be cited in
the academic press. Newcastle contribution: quantitative analysis and
Awards by funder: PI is Professor Adamson unless otherwise stated.
• Department of Health. Five awards totalling £1,731,179.
• Medical Research Council. Two awards totalling £525,217.
• Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), whose
responsibilities were transferred to the Food Standards Agency during the
research period. Six awards totalling £1,498,797 including £507,000 to
• NHS Executive — Northern & Yorkshire. One award 1999-2000 of
• Wellcome Trust. One award 1999-2001 of £167,683.
Details of the impact
The risks of a poor diet
A poor diet is one containing unbalanced proportions of nutrients,
especially excessive consumption of saturated fat, salt and sugar and
insufficient intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre. Poor diet contributes
to a range of health risks, including nearly 50% of all deaths from
coronary heart disease, a third of all cancer deaths, diabetes, obesity
and dental caries. Obesity alone costs the NHS more than £5 billion every
year, with over 60% of adults overweight or obese.
A proposed solution to tackle poor diet
One proposed approach to poor diet has been to clarify the nutrition
information on the front of food packaging to ensure that consumers are
able to make informed choices when purchasing food. A report from January
2008 entitled "Healthy weight, healthy lives" set out Government
expectations of companies in every food sector to promote healthy eating
under the Healthy Food Code of Good Practice, stating "A single, simple
and effective approach to food labelling used by the whole food
industry, based on the principles that will be recommended by the FSA in
light of the research currently being undertaken" (pg. 18). This
research, culminating in the publication of R4 and R5, confirmed that
different label formats were difficult for participants to interpret and
took time and effort to understand, and proposed that front-of-pack labels
The impact of Newcastle research on Government policy regarding front
of pack food labelling
In October 2012, the Department of Health announced the introduction of a
new, consistent labelling format (EV b), directly citing R5: "Consumers
are confused when more than one scheme is used and this reduces their
ability and inclination to use this information. Available online at the
European Journal of Public health website [link given to R5]."
The final design was announced by Health Minister Anna Soubry in June
2013 (EV c) in a press release that also directly cites R5: "This comes
after research [embedded link to R5] shows that people can end up
bewildered by the different nutrition labels on food."
Many food manufacturers have signed up to this scheme, including MARS,
Nestlé UK, PepsiCo UK, and Premier Foods. As well as this, seven of the
top ten UK retail brands have agreed to take part in the scheme, including
Tesco Food Stores Ltd, Marks and Spencer, Boots, Asda Stores Ltd,
Sainsbury's, Waitrose Ltd (EV d), Morrisons Ltd (EV e) and The
Co-operative Food (EV f).
Health Minister Anna Soubry states: "Research shows that, of all the
current schemes, people like this label the most and they can use the
information to make healthier choices." (EV c). The Executive
Director of Which?, Richard Lloyd, states: "We welcome this big step
forward towards making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices"
(EV c). Finally, Simon Gillespie, the Chief Executive at the British Heart
Foundation states: "This is undeniably a first-class scheme that will
make it easier for shoppers to scan the shelves and make more informed
choices about what's going in their trolley." (EV c).
The announcement has generated a high level of public awareness and
debate: the BBC website covering the announcement accumulated over 500
comments in the two days the article was open for comment (EV g).
In summary: with the introduction of a standardised front of pack
labelling system, consumers are given clear information about the food
they purchase, helping them to be more aware of food that contributes to a
poor diet and therefore of the health risks, such as obesity, that are
linked to poor diet.
Sources to corroborate the impact
EV a. Letter from the Food Information and Promotions Manager at the
Department of Health, available on request.
EV b. Government press release "Hybrid system for food labelling given
green light" October 2012: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hybrid-system-for-food-labelling-given-green-
EV c. Government press release "Final design of consistent nutritional
labelling system given green light" June 2013:
EV d. Waitrose announce their adoption of the FSA system:
EV e. Morrison's announce their adoption of the traffic light system:
EV f. The Co-operative Food announce their adoption of the
traffic light system:
EV g. BBC Health news article on the UK adoption of the labelling system: