In the somewhat painfully named study A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices, researchers added color coded labels to food sold in a large hospital cafeteria to see if they could influence people to make healthier choices. They used a simple red, yellow, green system where red meant unhealthy, yellow meant less healthy and green meant healthy.
In the first phase of the study, items were placed where they would normally be found. In the second phase, some of the green items were placed where they were more visible and therefore more convenient to buy. The results were dramatic, especially with drinks:
Sales of red items decreased in both phases (P < .001), and green items increased in phase 1 (P < .001). The largest changes occurred among beverages. Red beverages decreased 16.5% during phase 1 (P < .001) and further decreased 11.4% in phase 2 (P < .001). Green beverages increased 9.6% in phase 1 (P < .001) and further increased 4.0% in phase 2 (P < .001). Bottled water increased 25.8% during phase 2 (P < .001) but did not increase at 2 on-site comparison cafeterias (P < .001).
They concluded that color coding influences people to make healthier choices, and it works especially well with the addition “architecture intervention” (e.g. making green-labeled stuff easier to see and buy).
It’s unlikely that food manufacturers are going to adopt any system that curtails sales (outside of a hospital cafeteria that is). But that doesn’t mean you can’t color code your own food at home to help you make better eating choices. Buying some simple stickers like these is an easy way to give it a try.
I already use my own form of architectural intervention by keeping any “red” foods in hard to see (and in some cases hard to reach!) places, while leaving fruits and veggies in plain sight and readily accessible.