If It's Green, It Must Be Healthy

What does it say about our ability to be informed consumers that we interpret nutrition labels based on their color?
More
1393368080_2540809581_z570.jpg
Claude Fabry/Flickr

Do people think 250 calories is a little or a lot for a candy bar? According to Cornell researcher Jonathon Schuldt and 93 university studentsit depends on the color of the label.

Schuldt asked the group to imagine that they were hungry while waiting in a grocery checkout lane. They were then shown an image of a candy bar with a Photoshopped red or a green calorie label. When asked about factors that might affect their decision to buy, the students perceived the green-labeled bar as more healthful than the red one, despite identical caloric information.

marsbarsinset.jpgMars, Inc.

Schuldt also conducted a similar experiment with online participants. They were shown candy that had either green or white labels and asked to rate how healthiness factored into their decision about which foods to buy and eat. Participants who placed a higher importance on healthy eating perceived the white-labeled candy bar as less healthful -- but no such pattern appeared when the candy bar had a green label, again despite identical displaying calorie numbers.

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

As readers of Michael Moss' book Salt, Sugar, Fat know, the invisible hand of packaged foods industry focus groups is always at work. Tiny alterations, like the color background of calorie information can make marked differences in perception, so food marketers find ways to hint at whatever values consumers infer. Good luck, social marketing campaigns.

The implications of this research for policy-makers are less clear. It suggests that the design of labels may deserve as much attention -- or more -- as the nutritional information they convey. Do regulators need to manage the real estate on the front in addition to the standardized nutritional chart on the back label to have a prayer of effecting behavioral change? Perhaps Michael Bloomberg should have opted for label redesigns instead of actual product limitations.

Schuldt has produced other studies concerned with consumer misperceptions. In 2012, he and two colleagues hinted that virtuous claims, like "organic" or "Fair Trade," might actually prompt over-consumption. When eaters chew on Fair Trade chocolate, he found, they also believed it had fewer calories than non-Fair Trade chocolate -- another possible reason for Fair Trade advocates to promote certification.

Labels matter, and we're still learning how they influence us in less than obvious ways.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In