Smart Takes

Can color-coded labels induce healthy food choices?

Posting in Architecture

Would you feel guilty buying a red-labeled food choice?

We've seen the adverts, the television shows which take obese individuals and cast them into the pit of hell in order to rapidly lose weight, and in the UK, 'Don't forget your five-a-day!' leaflets are thrust through the letterbox on a frequent basis.

But hyperbole aside, trying to influence the general public into making healthier food choices often involves lengthy lectures on calorie intake, saturated fats, organic options versus processed and different food groups.

If you strip away the complex and rely on simple color codes, would this be more effective?

Apparently, appealing to our sense of color may indeed have this result.

In a hotel cafeteria, color-coding food items and altering their display was part of a project to test the theory. Featured in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that despite differences in ethnicity or education levels, the 'interventions' changed purchase patterns.

The first stage of the study, which began in early 2010, involved attaching color-coded labels to every item available for sale in the cafeteria. Green signified the healthiest -- such as fruit or vegetables -- yellow marked foods with less nutritional value, and red marked everything with little or no nutritional value.

In mid-2010 the second phase, called "choice architecture", was initiated. Refrigerators and shelving were arranged so healthy options were placed at eye level, whereas yellow and red-coded items found themselves below eye level. Additional bottles of bottled water were placed where hot food was served.

Purchase decisions were linked through a program which allowed employees to pay for meals through a payroll deduction. The information, self-reported and stored through the hospital's HR department, tracked an employee's food decisions without revealing the personal identity to the research team. In analysis, the ethnic category and job type were combined with purchase decisions based on the green, yellow and red-label foods.

In total, 4,600 employees were analyzed. The ethnic groups included were white, black, Latino or Asian, and educational levels were reflected by job types -- including service workers, support staff, technicians, health professionals, physicians and nurses.

Assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the report Douglas Levy said:

"These findings are important because obesity is much more common among Americans who are black or Latino and among those of low socioeconomic status. Improving food choices in these groups may help reduce their obesity levels and improve population health."

When the study began, the researchers reported that black and Latino employees and those in job categories "associated with lower education" purchased more red-label items than white employees or those in "higher education" job types. However, by the end of the study, all categories of employee were purchasing more green items and fewer red-label food choices.

In addition, healthier drink purchases also rose.

As a result of the study, color-coding items has been extended permanently to all food services across the site. Levy concluded:

"Further study is needed to determine the long-term effect of these interventions and whether additional steps could improve their effectiveness in particularly vulnerable populations. But because these measures are both simple and inexpensive to implement, they could easily be tried in a variety of food sales environments -- such as cafeterias, convenience stories and even vending machines."

Image credit: Massachusetts General Hospital Nutrition and Food Service

(via Massachusetts General Hospital)

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure