Food and diet

New colour-coded food nutrition labels launched

A radical overhaul of how nutritional information is displayed on the front of the packaging of many food products has been announced.

The government, food makers and food retailers have agreed the new standardised front-of-pack labelling to help make it easier for people to make healthier choices about what they buy and eat.

The Department of Health has today set out what the new food labels will look like and outlined how a colour-coding scheme of energy, salt, sugar and fat will look and how their levels are set.

Currently, food and drink labels often differ in the range of nutritional information provided. Currently, there is no law forcing retailers and manufacturers to display such information and manufacturers are currently only required by law to provide nutritional information if the product makes a nutritional claim. For instance, nutritional information must be on a product that claims to be ‘low fat’ or if vitamins or minerals have been added to the product.

Under new European Union rules, manufacturers will be required to provide particular nutritional information by December 2016. But any manufacturer that chooses to provide front-of-pack information will have to comply with the EU regulation by the end of 2014.

What changes are being made to food labels?

Nutrition labels, when they are displayed, are often provided on the back, side or on the front of packaging. The new, standardised food labels will be displayed on the front of food and drink products and they will routinely include the following information per portion of food:

  • the amount of energy (presented in kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal), known as calories)
  • the amount of fat and saturated fat
  • the amount of sugar
  • the amount of salt

These amounts will be shown as ‘Reference Intakes’ (formerly known as ‘Guideline Daily Amounts’). Alongside the amounts listed above, food labels will show how much of the maximum daily intake a portion of food accounts for.

Food labels will also contain red, amber and green colour-coding to visually show the nutritional value of food portions. This will allow people to see at a glance if the food product has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt:

  • red means high
  • amber means medium
  • green means low

In short, the more green(s), the healthier the choice.

Read more about the terms used on food labels.

When are these changes being made?

Standardised front-of-label packaging will be in place by December 2014 by organisations that have signed up to make the changes. Some have already made the changes and some will make changes from today.

Why are food labels being changed?

Research has shown that the different nutrition labels on food are confusing. These different nutrition labels have arisen because companies have responded to their customers’ demand for more nutritional information, but until now there has been no agreement on a consistent format. The new labelling system aims to make it easier for people to make healthier choices, by comparing the same kinds of foods to see if there is a healthier option. 

As part of the government’s efforts to improve health through reducing obesity levels, the Department of Health is working with food manufacturers and supermarkets through a programme called the Responsibility Deal. This programme aims to get business to reduce the amount of calories, salt and saturated fat in foods. The standardised front-of-pack label is a new Responsibility Deal pledge that food and drink companies can sign up to. Many companies already have taken this pledge to change their food labels.

Public Health Minister, Anna Soubry, said: “The UK already has the largest number of products using a front-of-pack label in Europe, but we know that people get confused by the variety of labels that are used. Research shows that, of all the current schemes, people like this label the most and they can use the information to make healthier choices.

“We all have a responsibility to tackle the challenge of obesity, including the food industry. By having all major retailers and manufacturers signed up to the consistent label, we will all be able to see at a glance what is in our food – this is why I want to see more manufacturers signing up and using the label.” 

The labels are not designed to ‘demonise’ foods with lots of reds, but to have people consider what they are eating and make sure it’s part of a balanced diet. Check out the Eatwell Guide for more information about a healthy balanced diet.

Who is changing their labels?

Manufacturers that have agreed to change their labels include:

  • Mars UK (which makes popular brands that include Mars bars, Bounty, Galaxy and M&Ms)
  • McCain Foods (including McCain Chips and McCain Hash Browns)
  • Nestlé UK (including cereals such as Shreddies and confectionery such as KitKats)
  • PepsiCo UK (including Walkers Crisps, Doritos, 7UP)
  • Premier Foods (including Hovis bread, Ambrosia puddings, Oxo cubes and Mr Kipling baked goods)

Supermarkets and other companies that have agreed to change their labels include:

  • Aldi Stores Ltd
  • Asda Stores Ltd
  • Boots
  • Co-operative Food
  • Iceland Foods
  • Lidl UK
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Morrisons
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Tesco
  • Waitrose

Because so many major food manufacturers and retailers are making the change, it is hoped that most others will follow suit and start using the new labelling system on their packaging.

Analysis by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

NHS Attribution