Could a simple green calorie label make people see nutrition-poor foods as healthier?

By Stephen DANIELLS

- Last updated on GMT

Green label, red label?
Green label, red label?

Related tags: Nutrition

Adding a green calorie label to sugary snacks may increase consumer perception of healthfulness of foods, says new data from Cornell University.

Consumers were found to perceive candy bars as more healthful when they had a green calorie label compared with when they had a red one – even though the number of calories is the same, according to findings published in the current issue of Health Communication.

"More and more, calorie labels are popping up on the front of food packaging, including the wrappers of sugary snacks like candy bars. And currently, there's little oversight of these labels,"​ said Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication and director of Cornell's Social Cognition and Communication Lab.

"Our research suggests that the color of calorie labels may have an effect on whether people perceive the food as healthy, over and above the actual nutritional information conveyed by the label, such as calorie content.”

The findings have implications for nutrition labeling, said Schuldt, given that front-of-package calorie labels have become increasingly common in the food marketplace in the US and Europe. He noted that M&Ms and Snickers, for example, have green front-of-package calorie flags that are particularly conspicuous to consumers at points-of-purchase.

"As government organizations including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider developing a uniform front-of-package labeling system for the US marketplace, these findings suggest that the design and color of the labels may deserve as much attention as the nutritional information they convey,"​ he said.

Data collection

For his study, Schuldt asked 93 university students to imagine that they were hungry and see a candy bar while waiting in a grocery checkout lane. The students were then shown an image of a candy bar with either a red or a green calorie label. When asked which candy bar contained more or fewer calories and its healthiness, the students perceived the green-labeled bar as more healthful than the red one, even though the calorie content was the same.

The experiment was repeated with 39 online participants shown candy with either green or white labels. The participants were asked to what extent the healthiness of food is an important factor in their decision about which foods to buy and eat, on a scale of 1 (not at all important) to 7 (very important).

The more importance the participants placed on healthy eating, the more they perceived the white-labeled candy bar as less healthful – a pattern that was eliminated when the candy bar had a green label.

"The green calorie labels buffer relatively poor nutrition foods from appearing less healthful among those especially concerned with healthy eating," ​said Schuldt.

Source: Health Communication
doi: 10.1080/10410236.2012.725270
"Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness,”
Author: J.P. Schuldt

Related topics: Markets, Food labeling and marketing

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