After six months, the researchers found that the labeling initiative had succeeded in curbing red-item purchases, and it had even increased purchases of
green products. Red-item purchases fell by 11 points. Green-item purchases rose by 6.6 points.
Beverages in particular saw some of the biggest changes. "Overall, employees' red beverage purchases decreased 23.8 percent during the Phase-1 labeling
intervention," the study's authors wrote, "and they further decreased by 14.2 percent during the Phase-2 choice architecture intervention." Mayor
Bloomberg, call your office.
Broken down by race, Latinos, blacks, and whites all saw big gains in terms of green-item consumption -- 9.4, 6.7, and 6.6 percentage points, respectively -- and the biggest decreases in red-item consumption -- by 11.4, 10.1, and 11.2 points, respectively. It's hard to say whether the decreases were the result of the labels themselves, peer pressure (nobody wants to be the only one buying heaps of red items if all their lunchtime friends are buying green, am I right?) or some combination of factors. But the improvements happened.
MORE ON STOPLIGHT LABELING
The experience of the study at Mass General suggests that people will choose healthier behaviors with even a mild level of intervention. That's great news. It turns out it's actually possible to transform our susceptibility to suggestion into an asset that works for us. By hijacking the same weaknesses that in other circumstances cause us to do what advertising, plate size, and other subtle external cues tell us to do, we might be able to keep ourselves healthy without the need for more heavy-handed measures.
This isn't the only example in which public health officials have stolen a page from food marketers' playbook. Though still hamstrung
by legal challenges, a federal proposal to slap all cigarette packages with disgusting photos of oral decay and diseased lungs is backed by strong
evidence that aggressive warnings keep would-be smokers at bay -- especially those who have already quit. Putting cigarettes in plain packaging helps, too -- the warnings stand out more. The case is less clear for menu labeling (in which restaurants are required to post calorie counts beside their
food items), but the menu rules may also have the side effect of getting restaurants to alter what they put on the menu in the first place, which ought to achieve much the
same result: a cutback on Americans' calorie intake.
Even if color-coded food labels gain acceptance as a useful alternative to outright bans on unhealthy products, though, that doesn't mean they'll necessarily be adopted. The food industry hates restrictions on its behavior, and there's nothing more threatening to its earnings than a scheme that tells consumers explicitly what not to buy. Beyond that, it's unclear how far such a program could spread. A lot depends on who's running the show. Hospitals or city governments can get away with it because they're either nimble and small, or their authority is so complete that resistance to the program becomes pointless. But at the federal level? Don't hold your breath. Bickering over what red, yellow, and green actually mean is likely to be as difficult -- if not more so -- than actually putting the system in place. There are a lot of political reasons, in other words, why a stoplight-style labeling initiative would fail before it even began.