Ann Thorndike and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital recently conducted a two-year study on the effects of food labels on choices made by hospital staff in the cafeteria. The labels symbolized a traffic light, with green labels indicating healthy choices that should be eaten often, yellow labels indicating food that should be chosen moderately, and the red light suggesting choices that should be made occasionally. They also rearranged the food to make the healthiest options at the front and at eye level, a technique called choice architecture.
The researchers found that after six months, people started changing their eating habits. The number of red items purchased in the cafeteria decreased by 20 percent, soda consumption decreased by 40 percent, and the healthiest green purchases increased by 12 percent. These trends continued through the duration of the two-year study.
What are the motivations behind these choices? Is there a stigma associated with choosing unhealthy items in the hospital cafeteria? Do the healthier choices made in the cafeteria continue at home, or do some people who eat the salad in front of coworkers then go home and make up for lost time with a less healthy options?
Another study suggests that this may not be the case, and this type of food labeling system has positive effects on consumers when making decisions about food to be eaten at home. In October 2013, a rigorous study conducted by the USDA, FDA, and University of Florida found that the Guiding Stars Program, which uses a point system of zero, one, two, or three stars to rate every item in the grocery store, encourages shoppers to choose healthier foods.
Researchers examined the purchase data of cereals before and after the Guiding Stars Program was implemented at 134 grocery stores. The data was compared to data from an equal number of control stores not using this system. They found that consumers were significantly more likely to choose more nutritious cereals with one, two or three Guiding Stars, over less nutritious cereals with zero stars.
These studies suggest that unhealthy food choices are not always based purely on choice, but education plays a role as well. Some people, once informed about what is nutritious, will make the choice to eat healthy. As usual, knowledge is power, and given that knowledge, people are more likely to make healthy, informed decisions.