Color Coding Foods Improves the Selection of Healthier Alternatives

Matengo Chwanya's picture

Evidence gathered by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital shows that properly color-coded food labels could play a significant role in ensuring people pick up healthier foods when shopping.

The data that corroborates this was taken from a 2010 study that involved the use of red, yellow and green food labels. Red labels were used for foods with little or no nutritional value, while yellow labels were used for foods with a moderate level of nutrients. The healthiest and most nutritious foods had green labels.

Most prepackaged food feature a table that display the nutritional composition of the packaged substance, and upon request, it is possible for you to get a breakdown of the nutritional composition of foods purchased in restaurants and other food outlets. For many people however, their lack of nutritional knowledge means that much of this information bears little significance on their food buying decision, hence the need for a simpler method to highlight the differences in nutritional composition.

Conducting the Study

The study was conducted over three months in 2010 at the Hospital’s cafeteria. These months were split such that one month of study was conducted before the inclusion of labels on all foods, while the other two months of study  were conducted after the labels had been attached. After the labels had been added, cash registers were also program to indicate the corresponding color label for each food.

Healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits and lean meats, which had green labels, were promoted over foods that had yellow or red labels.

Random participants were selected prior to and after the labeling and asked questions that sought to determine whether or not they had or not for instance made their purchasing information based on the affixed labels.

There were a total of 447 participants; 204 of these were interviewed prior to the labeling and 243 after labeling the foods.

Improvement in Baseline Numbers

It was found that whereas only 46% of the respondents had thought of the nutritional aspect of the food before they were coded, 61% made their decision based on the nutritional composition after they were coded.

Furthermore, the number of people who asked for nutritional information on non-color-coded foods, such as meals prepared in the cafeteria, rose from 15% prior to the coding to 33% after the food products were labeled.

It May Be All About The Color

I think this would be an appropriate moment to introduce a similar but fundamentally different research that was published in March this year in the Health Communication journal.

The paper, submitted by a Cornell University researcher, found that people were drawn into buying food items with green wrapping even if they were unhealthy. When compared with other colors, green seemed to convince people that an unhealthy food/snack was a much better alternative than a healthy food wrapped in white.  This theory was tested on 93 university students and 39 online participants, who asked to either make a choice between a green and a red candy bar, or a white and green bar. Green candies were overwhelmingly chosen over the other candy.

What this suggests is that some participants could have chosen the green labelled food without checking its nutritional composition, and that remains a field of further research that the Massachusetts General Hospital could address, to see whether people really read the nutritional composition of food.

That said however, it is clear that the consistency in correctly color labelling all foods was instrumental in helping people make healthier food choices, and that is instrumental in ensuring that the society at large develops healthy eating habits.

According to a second part of the study whose data was not released with this, rearranging foodstuff in order that the healthy choice are at levels while the less healthy alternatives are found below the eye level in the cafeteria shelves and refrigerators was also effective in increasing the number of people who purchased healthier foods.

This combined method of color coding and high placement has been in use in Massachusetts General Hospital cafeterias since 2010. It works.


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