Sainsbury's traffic light tabular format labelling

The government’s new labelling system could downgrade certain products.

An “unintended consequence” of the government’s new front-of-pack labelling system will mean many products that would have had a red light for sugar levels under current FSA guidelines will qualify for an amber instead, it has emerged.

The Department of Health (DH) is due to launch its new universal hybrid system on Wednesday in a bid to end consumer confusion over competing retailer schemes. However, some manufacturers have expressed disquiet that rival products – including some breakfast cereals, biscuits and cakes – that are high in added sugar could effectively be labelled as healthier than before.

The UK government, the Scottish government and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies are backing the launch of the new voluntary system, which will combine traffic light colour coding and reference intakes (replacing GDAs).

“It’s an unintended consequence – and one of many – of the EU regulations, and it will mean in some cases products which would have got a red before, turn amber under the new scheme”

But under the EU’s Food and Information Regulations, the DH has to limit any voluntary additional front-of-pack schemes to strict terms – including, in the case of sugars, total, rather than added, amounts.

Current FSA guidelines used added sugar as the basis for handing out a red light for sugar, with any product with more than 12.5g per 100g of added sugar seeing red.

But The Grocer understands the new thresholds to be unveiled this week will only show a red light for sugar in products that breach a total of 22.5g per 100g of total sugar.

“Any product that is relatively high in added sugar is going to benefit from this change,” said one leading food labelling expert. “It’s an unintended consequence – and one of many – of the EU regulations, and it will mean in some cases products which would have got a red before, turn amber under the new scheme.”

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Insiders said the DH was worried that, unless it raised the thresholds, a raft of healthy products containing natural sugar – including fruit-based items, such as yoghurts – could end up being “demonised”.

But some manufacturers of low-sugar products claim their rivals have been given an artificial boost by the compromise measure and warn the guidelines will end up causing more confusion, rather than less.

“The purpose of having a new universal system was supposed to get rid of confusion but what we are going to see here is some products which had been getting a red – or products which would have got one if they were part of a previous scheme – going to amber,” one cereal supplier said.

“Moving the goalposts from 15 to 22g is going to favour products which are high in added sugar and could penalise those that are lower in added sugar.

“It’s quite a big jump.”