Traffic Light Guide explained

Rachel Hartley | 02 Sep, 2021

To help you make more informed food choices, we've added a traffic light guide for food to our latest app update. This colour-coded system is a great way to see at a glance the nutritional content of a food, so you can compare different products and serving sizes. Here is an explanation of the colours and how to use the guide in the app.

What are 'traffic lights' and what do the colours mean?

Traffic light pack

Most food products have a simple front of pack traffic light label. It focusses on the four nutrients in our diet that can become a problem if consumed in excess – fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. The colour code is based on the quantity of each of these nutrients in the product.

Although this additional nutritional information on the front of a food pack is only voluntary, many food manufacturers choose to show it to help consumers make more informed choices about the foods they buy in the supermarket.

We've incorporated the same guide into the app to give you a quick visual guide to the nutritional content of the foods you're logging in your diary:

Green: the food is low in the nutrient. It can be consumed regularly day-to-day as part of a healthy diet.

Amber: the food is neither high nor low in the nutrient. It can be consumed most of the time as part of a healthy diet.

Red: the food is high in the nutrient. Consumption of these foods should be moderated and shouldn't be consumed in large amounts regularly.

Try to choose foods with green and amber traffic lights where you can, and limit your intake of foods highlighted red.

Where do traffic lights appear in the Nutracheck app?

When you search for a food, the traffic lights will show against portion sizes for these nutrients: fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. You can also turn on traffic lights to show against foods you add to your diary – the colours will only show up if you have selected to track fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt in your diary. If you have the first column set for calories, you will only be able to select one of these other nutrients.

How do I manage the traffic light settings in the app?

You can choose whether to display traffic lights in your diary and on the product serving page.

In your diary, tap the blue menu icon to the right of the search bar > Diary Preferences > Traffic Light Guide. Here, you will see toggles to switch traffic light colour coding on and off.

Traffic light pack

Why do some items have traffic lights, and some do not?

Most products show traffic lights but if an item does not, there may be a couple of reasons:

  1. The information is not readily available – in this case we are working on getting it added where possible.
  2. We do not know the weight of the item to apply the traffic light rule to all servings (so it may only show on larger servings as red).

Why don't some foods I add via Fast Track show traffic lights when added to my diary?

Traffic lights will not show on foods you've historically searched for, and then multi-add to your diary.

The fix is to add each item individually from Fast Track rather than several together – traffic lights will then show going forward.

Why are there no traffic lights for calories?

The four nutrients food manufacturers label with traffic lights are fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Eating too much of these nutrients has been associated with negative health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease. Energy per se is not associated with specific health risks, so there isn't a traffic light guide for 'Kcals'. However, it is still important to pay attention to the calories in your food to make an informed choice, especially if you're trying to lose or gain weight.

Why are there no traffic lights for protein, carbs or fibre?

High intakes of carbohydrates, protein and fibre aren't directly associated with negative health outcomes, so most of us don't need to moderate our intake of these nutrients. In fact, especially in the case of fibre, many of us could do with eating more! Carb-rich foods are a great source of B-vitamins and energy, protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery, and fibre promotes a healthy heart and gut.

Why does fruit not show a traffic light colour?

Fruits contain natural sugars which are not the type to be concerned about. Fruits are also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre which helps to slow down the absorption of natural sugars into the bloodstream. As fruits have multiple health benefits, we do not want to discourage you from eating them!

If a food shows a red traffic light for fat, how do I know if it's good or bad fat?

Although high-fat diets are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it's saturated fat in particular that we should be cutting back on. To track saturated fat in the app, check that the nutrient in your diary column is 'S/FATg' instead of 'FATg'.

Traffic light pack

Making the most of the traffic lights

The traffic light guide is a great way to quickly gauge the nutritional profile of a food at a glance; however, it's important to remember it does not tell the whole story.

Two foods may both show a red traffic light for a certain nutrient, but their overall nutritional benefit could be very different. For example, a handful of cashews and a bar of white chocolate may both show red for fat, but that doesn't mean they are substitutes for one another. Cashew nuts also provide a healthy dose of iron and zinc, whereas white chocolate has little nutritional value. Equally, a glass of orange juice and a can of cola may both show red for sugar, but you won't get the same benefits of vitamin C from cola as you do from orange juice.

So, the take-home message is to use the traffic light guide as a valuable tool, but consider other aspects of your food choice too, such as the level of processing it has been through or the amount of vitamins and minerals.

Nutracheck co-founder Rachel Hartley, BSc (Hons) Food & Nutrition is passionate about food and diet. Rachel's philosophy is providing accurate, up-to-date calorie information to help people make the right food choices.