The final part of this month’s management briefing focuses on the nutrition guidelines that form the basis of traffic-light and GDA labelling in the UK, as well as the criteria behind the labels on pack in the US.

Accompanying the reformulation trend and the drive for healthier products with reduced fat, salt and sugar has been the introduction of more precise nutritional labelling.

As well as acting as an important consumer education tool, front-of-pack labelling (FOP) systems also have an impact on reformulation strategies. The precise reduction offered by a reformulated product or purported healthier variant can be quickly assessed by both consumers and others, such as public health bodies and professionals.

For some years there have been a variety of systems being used in the UK, using either ‘traffic lights’ colour coding, guideline daily amounts (GDAs) or a combination of the two.

The ‘traffic lights’ system has the advantage of clarity and simplicity but is accused by its critics of being a blunt instrument.

The GDA system has been developed by the food industry. The GDA approach, where each nutrient is calibrated in terms of the percentage of a recommended daily intake, is a more detailed approach though its opponents suggest that it can confuse consumers. It is backed by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food manufacturers, and leading food retailer Tesco.

Most of the values used in the GDA system are based on the recommendations of the UK Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), with the exception of the figures for fibre, where US data was used, and salt, which was based on figures from a report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) in 2003.

It should also be noted that SACN last year raised its Estimated Average Requirements (EARs) by 16%. The move seemed to run counter to attempts to tackle overweight and obesity though the FSA and other public health bodies stressed that it should not be taken to mean that people should raise their calorie intake.

That announcement did, however, create considerable confusion. Indeed, campaigners have consistently called for simple messaging on nutrition. Hence their backing of the ‘traffic lights’ approach.

The Food Standards Agency had consistently supported the universal adoption of the ‘traffic lights’ system. However, in a controversial move earlier this year, the FSA backed a ‘flexible’ approach to front-of-pack labelling, where GDAs would be supported with either text or traffic lights

The nutritional criteria for the three ‘traffic light’ colours, as stipulated by the Food Standards Agency, and the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs), as designated in the UK food industry scheme, are set out below.

Traffic lights – Source: FSA
  Green Amber Red
Fat < 3.0 g/100g > 3.0 to < 20.0 g/100g > 20.0 g/100g or > 21.0g/portion
Saturates < 1.5 g/100g > 1.5 to < 5.0 g/100g > 5.0 g/100g or > 6.0g/portion
Sugars < 5.0 g/100g > 5.0 to < 12.5g/100g > 12.5g/100g or > 15.0g/portion
Salt < 0.30 g/100g > 0.30 to < 1.50g/100g > 1.50 g/100g or > 2.40g/portion

In addition to the per 100g value, the per portion measurement for a red light ensures that any food which contributes more than 30% (40% for salt) of an adult’s recommended daily maximum intake for a particular nutrient is labelled red.

Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) – Source: FDF
  Women Men

Children (5-10 years)

Calories 2,000 kcal 2,500 kcal 1,800 kcal
Protein 45g 55g 24g
Carbohydrate 230g 300g 220g
Sugars 90g 120g 85g
Fat 70g 95g 70g
Saturates 20g 30g 20g
Fibre 24g 24g 15g
Salt 6g 6g 4g

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publishes Daily Values (DVs) for key nutrients and a range of other ingredients as a guide for nutritional labelling. The daily values for certain key food components set out below are based on a total calorie intake of 2,000 calories.

Source: FDA
Food component Daily Values (DV)
Total Fat 65g
Saturated Fat 20g
Sodium 2,400mg
Total Carbohydrate 300g
Fibre 25g
Protein 50g