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Digging deeper into ‘AMBER’

Amber traffic lightsThe traffic light system in Smart Choices helps tuckshop convenors identify healthier foods, as defined by the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Foods from the five food groups are generally GREEN, while AMBER foods are mainly processed foods that have some sugar, salt or fat added to them.

This sounds simple on the surface, but take a closer look at processed products you might want to sell in the tuckshop, and it can quickly become confusing.

Is all processing bad?

Most foods we consume are processed to some extent, but not all processed foods are the same. You can think of processing on a ‘scale’; at one end are minimally processed foods like frozen fruits and vegetables, close to the original product and retaining valuable nutrients.

At the other end of the scale, the ‘product’ looks nothing like the original food, usually has a long list of industrial ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen (or tuckshop!), and is often packed with unhealthy additives like salt, sugars, and/or oils and fats.

Industrial ingredients
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Hydrolysed proteins
  • Maltodextrin
  • Flavour enhancers
  • Emulsifiers
  • Thickeners
  • Colours
  • Stabilisers
  • Sequestrants
  • Humectants
  • Carbonating, bulking, anti-caking and glazing agents.
Ultra-processed foods

Foods at this end of the scale are known as ultra-processed foods or UPF’s.  

UPF’s have been explained as ‘formulations of food substances modified by chemical processes and assembled into ready-to-eat products which are hyper-palatable’ – in other words, not real foods, but very tasty.

Combined with intense marketing by the junk food industry to increase appeal and it is no wonder an estimated 50% of total kilojoules consumed in Australia come from UPF’s.

A high intake of UPF’s increases risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, gut problems, and cancer.

How does this relate to Smart Choices?

In the language of Smart Choices, you might describe UPF’s as ‘deep’ AMBER. These products are very close to RED, and just scrape into the AMBER category because the manufacturer has kept the sodium or fibre within limits. But processing tricks don’t always make products healthier. Next time you are looking at an AMBER product and thinking about adding it to your menu, use this checklist to help you decide.


If you have ticked two or more of these boxes, it is likely the product is a UPF, and is better left off your menu.

Common UPF’s to watch out for:
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks
  • Cakes and cake mixes
  • ‘Cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars
  • ‘Instant’ sauces
  • Many ready-to-heat products including pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes
  • Poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’,
  • Burgers
  • Hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products.
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