Want to Change Food Habits? Study Says Use ‘Traffic Lights’

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Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/

We use them to ease congestion and create traffic patterns, but could the color scheme on stoplights also be a way to combat obesity? A study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine explains why “traffic light” labeling on food products could reduce the number of unhealthy choices made by consumers on a daily basis. When this system was implemented, a 20 percent reduction in red (unhealthy) choices occurred over a two-year period, and “green light” sales increased by 12 percent.

“Our current results show that the significant changes in the purchase patterns of both hospital employees and all customers resulting from the labels and the choice architecture program did not fade away as cafeteria patrons became used to them,” Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH, of the MGH Division of General Medicine, said in a Massachusetts General Hospital press release. “This is good evidence that these changes in healthy choices persist over time.” Thorndike led the study.

Sales from the main cafeteria at Massachusetts General Hospital between February 2009 and December 2012 were under studied. A three-month baseline was used to gather sales data before the new system was implemented. The first change was the traffic light labels, which after three months were followed by “choice architecture” changes. The latter did things like move green-lighted items to more prominent positions or place an option like salad next to pizza. The alterations are permanent, and signs were prominently posted to describe the meanings of the labels. The study wanted to determine how the label intervention impacted behavior in the long run. 

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