According to a Cornell researcher in the current issue of the journal Health Communication, consumers are more likely to perceive a candy bar as more healthful when it bears a green calorie label, compared with a red one, even though the calories counts are identical. Additionally green labels boost the perceived healthfulness of foods, especially among shoppers who make healthy eating a priority.
“More and more, calorie labels are popping up on the front of food packaging, including the wrappers of sugary snacks like candy bars,” noted Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication and director of Cornell’s Social Cognition and Communication Lab. “And currently, there’s little oversight of these labels. Our research suggests that the color of calorie labels may have an effect on whether people perceive the food as healthy, over and above the actual nutritional information conveyed by the label, such as calorie content.”
Schuldt asked 93 university students to imagine that they were hungry and saw a candy bar while waiting in a grocery checkout line. The students were then shown an image of a candy bar with either a red or a green calorie label. Schuldt asked them whether the candy bar, compared with others, had more or fewer calories and how healthy it was. The students perceived the green-labeled bar as more healthful than the red ones, despite the identical calorie counts.
Schuldt repeated the experiment with 39 online participants who were shown candy with either green or white labels. The participants were then asked how important a factor the healthfulness of food was in their decision about which foods to buy and eat, on a scale of one (not at all important) to seven (very important). The more importance the participants placed on healthy eating, the more they perceived the white-labeled candy bar as less healthful -- a pattern that was eliminated when the candy bar had a green label.
“The green calorie labels buffer relatively poor-nutrition foods from appearing less healthful among those especially concerned with healthy eating,” said Schuldt.
Because front-of-package calorie labels have become increasingly common in the food marketplace in the United States and Europe, the study results could influence how food items are packaged and positioned going forward.
“As government organizations, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consider developing a uniform front-of-package labeling system for the U.S. marketplace, these findings suggest that the design and color of the labels may deserve as much attention as the nutritional information they convey,” observed Schuldt.
The journal article, “Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness,” can be found online.