Are foods labelled ‘lighter’ any healthier?
20th September 2012
So called low fat foods can contain a similar number of calories to the standard versions and in some cases contain even more sugar, according to a study by consumer watchdog Which? The investigation by Which? found that as many as six out of 10 consumers eat low fat and light foods several times a week, believing that they are a healthier option and can help them to lose weight. But its snapshot sample of 12 low fat, reduced and light products from supermarkets, compared with their standard counterparts found minimal differences in calorie content.A standard McVitie's chocolate digestive contained 85 calories and a light one had 77. A Tesco low fat yoghurt had more calories per pot at 130 than a standard Activia version at 123, while the Tesco option contained more sugar at 20.2g, more than four teaspoons than the 16.9g in the Activia pot. The high fat and saturated fat content of cheese, meant Cathedral City lighter cheddar still contained a fat content, higher than the governments recommended guidelines. The problem appears to be the public’s general misconception of words such as: low fat, lighter, lite and lighter. Labelling regulations define low fat as containing less than 3% fat, which is great; however, what most people don’t realize is that there is a big difference between low fat foods and those labelled light, lite and lighter. A product labelled light, lite or lighter only has to contain 30% less fat than the standard version. 30% less fat than the standard product sounds very good, but not if the standard product contains far too much fat in the first place. In such cases even though the product contains 30% less fat than the standard product, it still contains a very high fat content. Which? found misconceptions among consumers about the meaning of the terms reduced fat and light, with only 16% of people correctly stating that products carrying the label had to contain 30% less fat than the standard alternative. The Consumer Watchdog said, “While shoppers believe that words such as light and low fat are interchangeable, they have significantly different meanings.” Richard Lloyd, executive director at the consumer group Which? warned consumers to read the labels carefully before they buy light, lite or lighter foods. He said, “Consumers are choosing low fat and light options believing them to be a healthier choice, but our research has found that in many cases they’re just not living up to their healthy image. Our advice to consumers is to read the nutritional labels carefully.” This is a view backed up by Maya Monteiro, Senior Education Manager at the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), who said, “There is a troubling lack of understanding about the calorie content of everyday food, a fact that is not helped by products being labelled light, when in fact they have a very high calorie content.” One positive development is the introduction of the traffic light labelling system, which many of the major Supermarkets are now adopting. Food sold pre packed is labelled with a traffic light label, showing at a glance the proportions of fat, saturated fats, sugar, and salt using traffic light signals for high (red), medium (amber) and low (green) percentages for each of these ingredients.


Green (low content)

Amber(medium content)

Red (high content)

Fat less than 1,5 g between 1,5 g and 10 g more than 10 g
Saturated Fats less than 0,75 g between 0,75 g and 2,5 g more than 2,5 g
Sugar less than 2,5 g between 2,5 g and 6,3 g more than 6,3 g
Salt less than 0,3 g between 0,3 g and 1,5 g more than 1,5
Foods with green indicators are healthier and to be preferred over those with red ones. The label is on the front of the package and easier to spot and interpret than Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) labelling, which will continue. The GDA is difficult to understand for many and does not lend itself to quick comparisons. The use of traffic light labelling is supported by many physician groups, including the British Medical Association and welcomed by consumers. Despite worries from some in the food industry that red foods would be shunned, the British Medical Association, Food Standards Agency and others agree, that consumers interpret the labels sensibly, realise they can have red foods as a treat, and they are easier to understand than lists of percentages.   Which? has campaigned for clearer food labelling and is calling on Morrisons andIceland, the two remaining supermarkets yet to adopt the traffic light system, to do so as soon as possible.