NUTRITION
January 15, 2014

Traffic Signal Nutrition

When cafeteria food is labeled green, yellow, or red according to its nutritional value, people make healthier choices. Genius!

Deciphering all the nutrition information on food labels can be overwhelming. You may feel you need an advanced degree. The truth is, however, that eating well is not rocket science; it's often pretty simple.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been studying a method of labeling foods that makes nutrition as easy to follow as a traffic signal. They found that coding foods with red, yellow and green can make a big difference in eating habits.

Color-coding food and beverages should be useful in other places where food is purchased, such as supermarkets, school and worksite cafeterias, and restaurants.

Healthy items in their hospital's cafeteria were identified with a green label. Less healthy items got a yellow label, and unhealthy foods were marked with a red label.

After two years of tracking food purchases using cash register receipts, sales of red foods dropped from 24 percent to 21 percent, and the purchase of green items increased from 41 percent to 46 percent. Purchases of red-labeled, sugar-sweetened beverages declined by almost 10 percent. At the same time, the sale of green-coded beverages rose to 60 percent.

The biggest change was seen in the eating habits of hospital employees. Since they purchased food in the cafeteria most often and most consistently, they were tracked and analyzed separately. Their diets improved considerably over the course of the study: They purchased more of the healthiest, green-coded items (up 12%) and cut back on the red. The number of red, splurge-at-your-own risk food they bought dropped by 20 percent, and “red” beverage purchases were down nearly 40 percent.

The results definitely suggest that this type of food labeling could improve eating behavior. Color-coding food and beverages should be useful in other places where food is purchased, such as supermarkets, school and worksite cafeterias, and restaurants.

While the color-coding system is no replacement for more detailed nutrition information that may be required by individuals with special dietary needs, it does provide a quick and basic snapshot that can be easily understood by everyone as they make food decisions on the fly.

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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