Traffic light-GDA combo best in UK labelling study

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Traffic light Nutrition

Latest round of research to identify the ideal front-of-pack labelling scheme indicates that a combination of traffic lights and GDAs is best understood by consumers.

Nutrition labelling is a hot topic since a new regulation that would make one standardised system mandatory across the EU is currently being debated. At present many different schemes are used in the EU, and indeed within individual member states, which some fear could confuse consumers.

While the system currently being proposed by the EU has considerable resemblance to the guidance daily amount (GDA) scheme already rolled out by the food and beverage industry, the UK’s Food Standards Agency has been encouraging use of traffic light colours on foods that have high, medium, and low levels of certain nutrients.

The new research, which was conducted by the independent Project Management Panel (PMP) over 18 months, indicates that consumers find a combination of the two easiest to understand.

The Food Standards Agency has said it will use the new findings; a spokesperson was not able to give a clear idea of the implications for its preference or UK policy today, since the topic will be discussed at a board meeting planned for next week.

But Sue Duncan, chair of the PMP, said: “It will provide a firm foundation for the FSA and other stakeholders on which to base future policy decisions on front-of-pack labelling”.


While understanding of various front-of-pack schemes used was generally high, ranging from 58 to 71 per cent, two schemes ranked the highest: the combination of GDA percentages with traffic light colours and the text ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ (70 per cent comprehension); and the traffic light colours used with the text (71 per cent comprehension).

“Whilst these two labels do not differ in overall level of comprehension, the balance of evidence is that the label combining text, traffic light colours and %GDA is the single strongest overall,”​ said the report. “It is one of the best liked labels, and it enables shoppers to use information in their preferred format; furthermore the inclusion of %GDA helps shoppers to determine the level of individual nutrients.”

The combination system was pioneered in the UK by Walmart-owned supermarket Asda.

The researchers, who used scientific testing methods, said that expressed preference was no indication of understanding. For instance, the ‘wheel’ format of nutrition information was seen to perform weakly, despite participants ranking it as one of their top two favourites.

The full findings of the PMP study are available at​.


Despite the positive findings on comprehension levels, both traffic labels and GDAs do have their detractors. Traffic lights have been condemned by some for being too simplistic, and for certain food categories, such as some dairy foods, it is difficult to avoid a red light for saturated fat – despite the presence of beneficial ingredients.

GDAs, on the other hand, have been criticised for requiring numeracy skills. In fact, the new research found that adults over 65, people with lower levels of educational attainment, and those from less advantaged social backgrounds were less likely to be able to accurately read front-of-pack labels.

Other criticisms of GDA have been raised by a recently launched campaign​.

Australian understanding

The publication of the PMP findings coincides with new research from Australia, also made public this week. Bridget Kelly of the Cancer Council and colleagues tested out four different approaches on 790 Australians. Each participant was exposed to only one kind of label on mock products.

They found that consumers preferred a consistent labelling approach across all products; but those shown the traffic lights were five times more likely to identify healthier foods than those shown percentage daily intake in a single colour; and three times more likely to do so when shown a colour-coded intake table.

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