Can traffic lights help fight obesity?

Will this educate children on how to eat healthily?
Will this educate children on how to eat healthily? Photo: Getty Images

Can the primary colours of traffic lights worldwide really serve to educate and empower children and parents to make better food choices?

Yes, says Angela Mallon, spokesperson of the online network, The Parents’ Jury.

“Traffic light labelling is an easy-to-follow guide that allows consumers to evaluate the content of food they plan to purchase at a glance. It is easily understandable and the Red, Green and Amber colour codes are an excellent visual aid in teaching children about sometimes foods and everyday foods. Multiple traffic light labelling would assist all parents, from all demographic groups, to teach their children how to identify the benefits of healthier foods.”

Schools across Australia have already adapted this system of categorising foods sold at school canteens, albeit to varying degrees. The system, outlined in the National Healthy School Canteens Guideline, allows school canteen managers to plan items on their menu by considering which colour code it belongs to.

Foods assigned the Green classification are recommend to always be on the menu as they provide a variety of nutrients and are also low in (one or all of) sugar, salt and saturated fat. These include low fat milk drinks, wholegrain bread products and cereals, fruits, vegetables and lean meat.

Those in the Amber category should be placed on menus carefully as they contain some important nutrients but may be too high in saturated fat, salt or sugar content. Examples are full fat milk drinks, processed or cured meats, baked snack biscuits, most sauces and pizzas.

Finally, foods in the Red category are not recommended on a school canteen menu as they are low in nutritional value and high in saturated fat, salt or sugar content. These include soft drinks, coffee-style products, cakes and deep fried food.

Although not mandatory at a national level, most state governments have modified versions of this policy, that schools then adapt. A recent review of 263 schools menus in Australia found that 62% of surveyed Western Australian schools complied with the state’s guidelines. However, at the other end of the scale, only 16% of Victorian schools and 5% of ACT schools managed to stick to their individual policies.

The lack of consistency in following guidelines prompted The Parents’ Jury to call on governments across the country to assist public schools to improve canteen menus and present a Healthy Eating message.


It is this exposure to a Healthy Eating message at school that contributes to improved fruit and vegetable consumption, according to research. Establishing a taste for fruits and vegetables early on meant that a preference to less nutritious alternatives, like sugary snacks could be overcome.

At a time where the obesity crisis in children is taking centre-stage, positive comments from nutritionists that say that obesity levels are levelling off as the traffic light system is being implemented in schools is encouraging, even if it is based on anecdotal evidence only.

Employing strategies like the NSW Government’s Fresh Tastes @ School program that guides school canteens to only serve items belonging to the Red category only twice a term further emphasises the message delivered by such foods – they should only be an occasional treat.

These techniques can easily be implemented at home as well with apps such as FoodSwitch. The free app, rates the contents of thousands of everyday packaged food products as Red, Amber or Green.

Lucinda Westerman, a member of The Parents’ Jury describes it as a great way to teach her children about choosing and eating nutritious food. Westerman says that it provides her family a handy way to access food information especially when the food industry is hesitant to roll out an effective, consistent system.

Adding to the delay in presenting a clear, uniform message across many of these foods that are available from supermarket shelves, the federal government rejected suggestions to roll out the traffic light system across foods on supermarket shelves. Addressing concerns from the food industry that colour coding foods Red would imply that consumers should stop eating this food altogether, the government has opted to test out a star system rating instead, similar to that used on white goods for energy efficiency.

The more stars a product has, the better it is for you.

While this system may be better than doing nothing about it, there is a concern that the effectiveness of the Healthy Eating message may be compromised.

“For the Healthy Eating message to work, there has to be consistency so that when children learn about everyday foods and sometimes food in the classroom, they should also see this in practice in the school canteen and also in the supermarket,” says Mallon.

While the Department of Health and Ageing (responsible for developing the new star rating system, titled Front of Pack Labelling System) is due to release recommendations soon, fans of the traffic light system can take heart from the fact that there are no plans to remove this system from school canteens.

For more information, tips and activities to encourage healthy eating head to:

Understanding Food Labels

Smarty Plants

How do you deliver the Healthy Eating message to your family?