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Traffic light-style labeling could encourage healthier choices: Study

3 commentsBy Caroline Scott-Thomas , 25-Jan-2012

Color-coded labeling and rearranging products in-store could lead consumers to make healthier choices, according to a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, added food labels in traffic light colors to foods and beverages in a large hospital cafeteria, with red, yellow and green colors reflecting the relative healthiness of different foods and drinks. Signs in the cafeteria encouraged patrons to choose green items often, yellow less often, and to consider alternative choices for red-labeled items.

“Reading and understanding nutrition labels is a complex task,” the researchers wrote. “Even highly literate consumers may have difficulty interpreting labels because of low numeracy skills…Although this scheme provided the consumer with less precise information than does calorie labeling, it conveyed complex information in a way that could be easily understood and acted on immediately.”

Three months after the color scheme was introduced, the effect was most striking for beverage sales, with sales of red-labeled drinks down 16.5% and green beverage sales up 9.6%. Sales of all red items fell 9.2% and green item sales were up 4.5%.

"We found that labeling all foods and beverages with a simple red, yellow and green color scheme to indicate their relative healthiness led patrons to purchase more of the healthy and fewer of the unhealthy items," said lead researcher Anne Thorndike of the MGH division of General Medicine, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "…We believe this intervention was so successful because it was simple and easy to understand quickly. The labeling did not require any special skills and could be easily interpreted when a customer was in a rush.”

In a second phase of the study, the researchers rearranged the placement of items on shelves and in refrigerators so that the green items were at eye level.

During this phase, red item sales dropped another 4.9% compared with the first phase. Beverage sales fell another 11.4%, and although green item sales fell 0/8% in phase two, sales of green-labeled drinks increased another 4%, the researchers found.

Source: American Journal of Public Health

Published online ahead of print

“A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices”

Authors: Anne Thorndike, Lillian Sonnenberg, Jason Riis, Susan Barraclough, and Douglas Levy.

3 comments (Comments are now closed)

stop light coding for food

We have been doing this approach in our cafeteria for over a year. It has made people aware of healthier choices but they still like the red food. We are going to try a different approach during national nutrition month to see if different types of diet and menu choices will influence even more.

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Posted by Debra Hack
28 January 2012 | 17h40

Leading to confusion by color

Amount of nutrient that show greens label may be equivalence to red if consume 2 serving size. But you will not aware because you chosen only green label and they make you fell save.

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Posted by shisa
27 January 2012 | 03h31

Traffic Lights Best Suited for Vehicles

There are two fundamental problems with this System:

1 - What "Rating" System do you use to determine Green, Yellow, and Red?

In other words, with the plethora of Food Rating Systems, merely assigning a Color to a Value - absent standardization (or universal acceptance) - solves nothing.

Or put another way, one man's Green Light might be another man's Red Light. Think High Blood Pressure, or Diabetes.

2 - Would there ever be an instance, for someone with a Food Allergy or Chronic Food Disease (think Celiac), where a Yellow Light (presumably "caution") is acceptable?

If you have a Peanut Allergy, you can't have Peanuts. Period. Red Light. So, the System MIGHT work for Nutrition, but NOT for Ingredient Analysis.

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Posted by Gregg London
25 January 2012 | 19h14

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