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Tesco: where red means 'proceed'?

27th July 2004

Tesco Healthy Living RangeTesco has promised a 'traffic light' labelling scheme to indicate the levels of fats, sugar and salt in its products. But shoppers should prepare for shelves full of red warnings, as we found that even the Tesco 'Healthy Living' range includes some nasty surprises.

From this September, Tesco should be displaying products with a new nutrition labelling scheme that gives a 'traffic light' coding with red warnings on food high in fat,saturated fat, sugar or salt, and green signals for low levels of these ingredients.

To quote the company's publicity statement: 'The traffic light initiative is the latest move by Tesco in its quest to provide customers with information that will help them make an informed choice when shopping. Since the launch of its Healthy Eating range almost 20 years ago Tesco has led the way in providing customers with the choice and information they need to follow a healthier lifestyle.'

So we took a look at Tesco's products promoted in its healthy eating range - now re-branded as Tesco Healthy Living - to check their 'traffic light' credentials.

Green all round, surely? But no: surprisingly, and sadly, the lights went amber and red again and again.

Using the Food Standards Agency criteria (see box right) we rated a sample of the company's products, including dairy, meat, cereal and dessert products.

Many of them would have to be coloured with amber warnings, and more than a few would have to carry a red danger signal - somewhat undermining the label's claim to be healthy.

For example, the so-called 'light' cream cheese in the Healthy Living range has nearly twice the levels of saturated fat that lead to a red signal.

Tesco's Healthy Living bran flakes (and also its sultana bran) will get a red signal for salt and a second red signal for sugar. And its Healthy Living sunflower spread gets three red signals: for fat, saturated fat and salt.

What was Tesco thinking of? Is the company planning to use a different set of nutritional criteria than the one recommended by the Food Standards Agency - which would be highly misleading to consumers and a slap in the face for the Agency's guidance.

Or did the company make its announcement without thinking through the consequences. It says it has come up with its traffic light scheme following '18 months of research and development with customers'. Hmmm.

Perhaps Tesco is planning to change the formulation of its products? If the company reformulates a broad range of products to ensure they do not get red warnings, then good for Tesco. The traffic light scheme can be deemed a success.

Let's see what happens in September…

P.S. Tesco is not alone in having high levels of salt, fat etc in its 'Healthy' range. The other supermarkets can also be held up to criticism in this regard - but they have not had the courage to propose traffic lights on the front of their packs.

Colour coding: the numbers

To help shoppers interpret nutritional information on food labels, the Food Standards Agency issued advice in 2002 defining what the Agency considered to be 'a lot' and 'a little' in respect of fats, sugar and salt. These can be used to identify red and green traffic lights - with intermediate quantities earning an amber light.

Amount per 100g of the product
Red lights
Green lights
10g or more
2g or less
Total fat
20g or more
3g or less
Saturated fat
5g or more
1g or less
0.5g or more
0.1g or less
How should a mixture of colours be interpreted? We suggest:
Green for go
All green lights - consume without worry, choose in preference to amber or red
Amber warnings
Some amber lights - eat in moderation, choose in preference to red
Red hazards
One or two red lights - leave these products on the shelf if you can


Tesco Healthy Living RangeHow would the Tesco Healthy Living range shape up to a traffic light scheme using the Food Standards Agency's definitions for 'a lot' and 'a little' of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar?

Bran flakes: At least the fat and saturated fat earn green lights, but then this is a breakfast cereal, so they should. What a shame that both the sugar (at 32g per 100g) and salt get a definite red light.

Pork mince: amber lights for fat and saturated fat, and green for sugar and salt.

Sausages: these get an amber light for fat and for saturated fat, green for sugar, but red for salt.

Liver paté: unfortunately this gets an amber light for fat, amber for sugar, red for saturated fat and red for salt.

Fruit Swirls: Green for fat and saturated fat and for salt, but a definite red for sugar, at 28g per 100g.

Sunflower spread: not surprisingly a green light for sugar, but sadly three red lights earned for total fat, saturated fat and salt.

Cream cheese: claimed to be 'Light' but amber for fat, salt and sugar and red for saturated fat.

Note: image does not show complete range