by Marion Nestle
Apr 10 2009

Consumers prefer traffic-light food labels

Lots of well meaning people are trying to develop systems for labeling foods by their degree of nutritional quality (I file posts on this topic under Scoring systems).  My preference is for traffic lights — green for eat anytime, yellow for once-in-a-while, and red for hardly ever).  So I was not surprised to see an announcement of a new study from Australia that tested consumers’ understanding of several kinds of food ranking systems.  According to the study itself, traffic lights beat out the other systems tested in helping consumers choose healthier foods.  I hear rumors that the Institute of Medicine is starting a study to evaluate consumers’ understanding of the various kinds of ranking labels on food products.  I suppose we will need to wait until that study is complete – a process that usually takes two or three years – before we hear its conclusion.  If we have to have one system, I’m voting for traffic lights.

  • Ansley

    If we agree that nutritional information should be provided to consumers by manufacturers and restaurants, then the next step is developing how that information is disseminated. The recent rash of proposed (and enacted) legislation on calories, sodium, and sugar seem like they could all be covered by a food rating system. I am personally in favor of a rating system that would identify foods containing more fat, sugar, sodium or calories than is recommended for a single serving. That way food providers can work towards meeting FDA recommendations and consumers can easily identify foods that exceed recommended values for the most troublesome of components.

  • Marion, this post may be long. I hope you don’t mind my contribution. – best, Anton Xavier

    I agree that a traffic light system is one of the simplest ways to communicate to consumers the nutritional quality of foods. However, there are also some inherent problems with this type of food rating system.

    Firstly, in this day and age, with the diversity of opinions as too what is healthy and the variety of individual dietary needs, is a “one size fits all” system really the best that we can do? What about the families with specific dietary needs, where one child has an allergy, the father is on a low sodium diet, and they have decided to try and avoid particular additives. Obviously, a traffic light system may help but it doesn’t consider the individual needs of each consumer.

    Secondly, which parameters should be used to rate each food, how are these parameters set and who will monitor this. Present rating systems are independent – which is great. It will be important for that to remain the case.

    Thirdly, none of the existing traffic light rating systems comprehensively consider the ingredients in foods or any of the other variables by which people want to know when choosing their food.

    There is no doubt that a traffic light system can be very useful as a quick guide directing consumers to better products and the efforts that are presently in supermarkets are definitely improving the situation. However, I think we can do better.

    I believe a more comprehensive way to provide this information is to give consumers the tools to easily compare foods by all of the variables that are important to their and their family’s particular dietary needs – a custom solution.

    This is what we have done at – we have developed a tool that allows consumers to search and compare foods by ingredient, additive, allergen, and nutrient properties. Find the lowest sodium, peanut and preservative free canned soup, the highest fiber, dairy and color free bread. Whatever your particular needs may be this system has the potential to help.

    Key to the FoodEssentials philosophy is impartiality. We do not make any judgments on foods; we do not tell you what is good or bad for you. We believe you know what is best for yourself and your family – we only help you to access and sort that information.

    This comment is obviously biased. I am the Founder & CEO of and I believe we have the most comprehensive system for displaying food product information. We have just recently launched and welcome your feedback, suggestions and criticisms.

    I hope this furthers the discussion.


    Anton Xavier

  • The clarity of a traffic light system is certainly appealing, but who would do the labeling? I visualize a situation in which certain criteria are set for each color, and then food manufacturers rework their food to barely fit the yellow or green criteria while still not being good for you. I suppose hurdles could be put in place to help prevent that, but it would be difficult.

  • Marisa

    I do not like any sort of rating system for food. There are many misguided food concepts out there (like “fat makes you fat”) and I eat a healthy diet, especially since I must eat gluten-free. I am also a science major at a university who is exposed to many scientific concepts about food. But, I suppose many people in this country do not know anything about science, where their food comes from, what sort of chemicals are bad for you, etc, so perhaps we do need a food rating system since people like that seem to be in the majority in this country. But considering that our FDA deems some food additives as safe that many other governments and scientists have agreed are bad for humans, how do we know that the rating system is even accurate?

  • Surely the question of what to eat is a big one for many people — and the “official” answers change with the wind. What if we were each to develop our own internal “traffic light” system? Focus on the food in question. Then, in your mind’s eye, picture a red – yellow – green light that informs about whether the food is a good choice for you at the moment. In other words, your own intuitive mind delivers a response about whether or not it’s a good choice. Perhaps this sounds a little “woo woo,” but give it a try. It works! (And not just for food.)

  • Jon

    Nutrition shouldn’t be so complicated. I’d like to see one for food processes, just because I know there are people out there who endorse juicing but compare something as harmless as grilling to hydrogenation. But there are a lot of dietary misconceptions, largely because of fad diets, and I’m including the American Heart Association in that number. (Indeed, it’s alphabetically just before Atkins.)

    It’d be cool to see a ranking system though. Fish obviously are a good example, with wild coho being at the top of the salmon list and imported farmed Atlantic salmon being the brightest red light since Arcturus. It’s also easy to apply to oils, with margarine being a red light and olive oil being a green light. Even fruit…an orange would be a green light, but orange juice would be yellow. Soft drinks, not surprisingly, would always be red. Not sure how we would apply it to condiments, since the bad-for-you condiments are usually common sense.

  • After reading some of the points above I wanted to add one more thing. As you can see from the perspectives above, there are already many different understandings of what should be red, green or yellow.

    The simplicity of a traffic light system could actually just introduce another layer of confusion that would need interpreting. Ironically, this could possibly complicate the decision making process.

    Anton Xavier

  • Lindsey

    Ms. Nestle – Could you expand a little on why you prefer the traffic light system over any other, if we are to have one at all? I (think) I oppose food rating systems except (maybe) if a single one is put forth by the FDA. However, if I were to choose one currently in existence I’d go with one of the actual number systems (like the NuVal one) because it seems slightly more nuanced over a broader range (1-100 as opposed to red, yellow, green). However having not actually seen NuVal in stores (hasn’t arrived where I live), I’m not sure what I would do with the information that tilapia scores an 82 and oatmeal an 88.

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