Tesco will launch ‘traffic light’ labels on its products in a major U-turn that marks a significant step towards the Department of Health’s goal of a common system of health labelling.

The UK’s largest supermarket will adopt a hybrid labelling system combining its existing Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) with the traffic light colour coding system – a move it said followed new consumer research.

Sainsbury’s claims a similar scheme has helped transform the food choices of its shoppers in favour of more healthy products.

Tesco said new research showed customers remained happy with GDAs and continued to favour them over traffic light colour coding, which it claims in isolation does not provide enough detail.

But it added: “The research also showed that customers prefer the combination of traffic light colours, which give simple at-a-glance guidance, and GDAs, which give accurate and meaningful information.

“Customers also want a consistent approach to labelling across the industry and Tesco is committed to working with the government, NGOs, public health organisations, other retailers and our supply chain to try to achieve this.”

Chief executive Philip Clarke added: “Tesco has led the way in giving shoppers clear information about the food they eat and was the first retailer to put nutritional information on the front of our packs in 2005, when we rolled out our Guideline Daily Amount labels.

“We always listen to our customers and they have told us that by combining our popular GDA labels with traffic light colour-coding we can make it even easier for them to make informed and healthy choices about the food they buy.”

Health secretary Andrew Lansley welcomed the shift, which closely follows the end of a DoH consultation on plans for a common traffic lights system.

“We launched our consultation on front of pack nutrition labelling earlier this year to try to ensure that as many food products as possible give clear and consistent information so that people can make informed decisions about how healthy their food is,” Lansley said.

“Tesco’s announcement today is a significant step towards achieving that goal. We know how important this is for consumers which is why we will continue to work hard with other retailers and food producers to try to achieve our aim of one consistent and clear system.”

He claimed the news showed how the coalition’s strategy of “working with industry, not against them, can quickly bring about changes to benefit our health”.

NGOs also supported the move. “This action by the UK’s largest supermarket will help millions of busy shoppers to make healthier eating choices and could have a real impact on people’s diets,” said Peter Hollins, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation.

“We hope others will build on Tesco’s initiative and commit to working with government to introduce consistent and easy to understand food labelling – including traffic light colours – across the country.”

A spokesperson for the Food & Drink Federation, a long-term opponent of traffic lights, said: “The consultation on front-of-pack nutrition labelling has only recently drawn to a close and we will be actively engaged in further discussions once the DoH has had time to digest all of the responses received.”