How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

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How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

The food industry doesn’t want you to have simplified food labels—so they’re using every trick in the book to keep you uninformed.
March 21, 2013
How Color Can Confuse Consumers Into Buying Junk Food

Is that a food label or hieroglyphics? (Photo: Getty Images). 

There’s a kind of turf war going on over the real estate that is the front of the box of your breakfast cereal. And your snack crackers. And your candy bars. Really, over what you see when you first look at pretty much any packaged food head on.
 
If (like me) you’re a get-in-and-get-out sort of supermarket shopper, you may not have even noticed the neat little labels that have started appearing on the front of lots of foods. They seem utterly benign, taking nutrition info that’s typically relegated to the back or side of the package and bringing it up front: how many calories per serving, say, how much saturated fat, sodium and sugar—maybe how much calcium, iron or fiber, too.
 
But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
 
Despite calls by public health advocates and nutrition experts for more consumer-friendly labels (in the face of an American obesity epidemic where lots of people seem to think Froot Loops constitute a serving of fruit), the Food and Drug Administration has been moving at a snail’s pace toward regulation of “front-of-package” (FOP) labels.

Both Mark Bittman and Marion Nestle (a.k.a. perpetual thorns in the side of big food makers) have called for radical new labeling, with Bittman proposing a super easy-to-read label last fall in The New York Times that would, in a glance, communicate to consumers how nutritious a product is, as well as how natural and its social/environmental impact. The label is color coded like a traffic light: red, yellow, green. (No real guessing about the meaning of those colors.)
 
And, you know, the likelihood of food makers going for Bittman’s scheme is about the same as Cap’n Crunch being named to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
 
A couple years ago, the Institutes of Medicine recommended that the FDA allow just four items on FOP labels: calories, saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugars. Then the food industry jumped in with its own “Facts Up Front” labeling plan.
 
You still get the four, but food makers then can add whatever they think you might like to hear, too. You pause because you see a product has, say, 500 mg of sodium per serving—but then you look to the right and see it has 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, so you toss it in your cart.
 
Critics of these relatively new labels say they confuse consumers—and now, it seems, it’s not just what the labels say that might be arguably deceptive. It’s what color they are.
 
Remember Bittman’s red, yellow and green proposal. Easy to understand, right? But what if there were no red or yellow. What if everything was just good, “all-natural,” “green-means-go” green?
 
As The Atlantic reports, Cornell researcher Jonathon Schuldt put FOP labels to the test. He asked a group of almost a hundred students to imagine themselves hungry and standing in line in the grocery store, then showed them one of two pictures of a candy bar. The images were the same, except the FOP calorie label (which said the candy bar was 250 calories) was colored either red or green.
 
We like to think we’re smart enough to outwit those wily marketers, but the joke may be on us, as Schuldt’s simple test reveals. Participants in the study were more likely to think the candy bar—the same darn candy bar—with the green label was healthier than the one with the red label.
 
Schuldt devised a similar experiment online, asking participants to rate how much they took the idea of healthiness into account when deciding what food to buy, then showing them candy bars with either green or white nutrition labels. Participants who had said healthiness was important to them ranked the candy bars with white labels as less healthy—but not the green-labeled candy bars.
 
Kermit was wrong: It may be too easy being green.

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