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How Much Do Color-Coded Food Labels Affect Consumer Choice?

March 3, 2022
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on March 2, 2022

Do you want to make healthier food choices? If you’re reading this article, the answer is probably yes. But it can be hard to reach for the probiotic, sugar-free yogurt when there’s a package of double-stuffed Oreos right within your grasp. When hunger pangs strike, it’s easier to go for the tasty, no-hassle junk rather than the good-for-you stuff that might require a bit of prep. But what if you had a little angel whispering on your shoulder “No, don’t eat that. That’s not healthy.” Or “Eat THAT! That’s much healthier.” It would probably be easier to make wiser nutritional choices. 

 

Well, there is that type of angel — of a sort. No, there’s no little person whispering in your ear, but many countries have begun implementing a label system to encourage consumers to purchase healthy foods over unhealthier options. Food manufacturers are required to include a warning label on the front of the package notifying customers of high fat, sugar, sodium, or other unhealthy nutritional content. While providing warning information to customers may sound like a good idea, does it actually influence their purchasing decisions?

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Healthy Eating - How to Start

Healthy Eating - How to Start

Jing Song and a team of researchers looked to answer this question in a meta analysis of peer-reviewed articles published between 1 January 1990 and 24 May 2021. The research team reviewed 156 studies to see what kind of packaging leads consumers to buy healthy products. They evaluated four types of package warnings:

 

  • Traffic light labeling system (TLS): Color-coded labels with the “unhealthy” nutritional information presented in three colors: Red, yellow, and green. Similar to the colors on a traffic light, green means healthy, red means unhealthy, and yellow is in-between.
  • Nutrient warning (NW): Warnings about the food’s nutritional value
  • Health warning (HW): Warnings about the potential health risks for an unhealthy item
  • Nutri-Score (NS): A food is assigned a number and color based on a calculation that evaluates the healthy and unhealthy nutrients in the food. The colors include five levels ranging from green (healthy) to red (unhealthy). Each level also includes one of the letters of the alphabet, A (healthy), B, C, D, E (unhealthy).

 

The researchers found that all types of labeling influenced consumer behavior:

 

  • TLS, NW, and HW encouraged customers to buy healthier products.
  • NS and warning labels discouraged customers from buying unhealthy products. 
  • NS and NW indicated overall healthfulness.
  • The most effective labels were color-coded. 

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Healthy Eating - Healthy Foods to Eat

Healthy Eating - Healthy Foods to Eat

Manufacturers spend a lot of resources trying to design packaging that will be appealing to customers. While their goal is to make money, health-conscious policy-makers are more interested in the nutritional value of the food. But how can consumers be encouraged to buy healthier products? Brown, dry oatmeal bars and white, tasteless yogurt are competing for their attention against the dazzling neon brights of sugar cereals and candies.

 

The answer is to fight color with color. When a customer buys bananas with a nutri-score label, she knows she’s made an “A-Green” choice. She will feel good about her decision every time she glances at the shining, green label. Placing educational warnings may convince the conscientious shopper to put down the instant ramen, but bland block texts can easily be glanced over for anyone else. Education is a great first step in leading a healthy lifestyle, but awareness is what brings the consumer to make healthy choices. Placing colored labels and educational materials on the products themselves goes a long way to reminding the customer that a “red-label” snack is an invitation for a heart attack. While no one can tell you what to buy or eat, keeping your eyes open for nutritional labeling can help you get started on a path to healthier decision making.

 

Written by Chani Bonner

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