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Could simple colour-coded labels help us eat better?

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Getting people to eat healthier foods is often a losing battle. We don't like being told what to eat or drink, especially by the government. When New York announced plans to implement a ban on large soft drinks, critics blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg for trying to run a nanny state.

But is there a way to encourage people to eat healthier without actually making junk food illegal?

A simple traffic-light style colour-coding system can be effective in curbing sales of sugary and fatty foods, according to recent data released by the Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Researchers put different coloured labels – red, yellow or green – on foods and drinks sold in the hospital cafeteria based on how healthy the product was. Items with healthier ingredients – such as fruits, vegetables or whole grains – were labelled green, meaning diners should consume them more often, products with less nutritional value were labelled yellow, and foods with a lot of saturated fat and calories were stamped red, meaning patrons should avoid them.

In the second part of the study, the researchers moved items around so the green-labelled foods were more visible and easier to grab.

After six months, they found that the colour-coded system led to a decrease in the number of red-item purchases and even increased the number of green-labelled products sold. Beverages, especially, saw a decline, with red-labelled drink purchases falling 23.8 per cent during the first phase of the study, and another 14.2 per cent when the unhealthy drinks were made less accessible.

"We believe this intervention was so successful because it was simple and easy to understand quickly. The labelling did not require any special skills and could be easily interpreted when a customer was in a rush," said Anne Thorndike, who led the study, in a press release.

Current efforts to encourage better food choices focus on posting the calorie content of the food, the press release states, but people often don't know how to read or understand that information, which requires knowing how many calories you should be eating and accurately estimating serving sizes.

The results of the research suggest that with just a little bit nudging, people will choose healthier behaviours, The Atlantic reports, possibly because it gives people the illusion of control. "By hijacking the same weaknesses that in other circumstances cause us to do what advertising, plate size and other subtle external clues tell us to do, we might be able to keep ourselves healthy without the need for more heavy-handed measures."

But even if these colour-coded labels gain acceptance, it's unlikely that the system will be widely adopted. "The food industry hates restrictions on its behaviour, and there's nothing more threatening to its earnings than a scheme that tells consumers explicitly what not to buy," the Atlantic adds.

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Do you think a colour-coded labelling system can be an effective way of improving our food choices?

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