Imagine if nutritional labeling on foods were as simple as a traffic light: Fruits, vegetables, and other healthy items would have a green badge; foods somewhat higher in fat, sugar, and salt a yellow badge; and those with little nutritional value a red badge. In the first long-term study of such a system, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that sales of unhealthy foods labeled “red” in its hospital cafeteria decreased by 20 percent, while sales of healthy foods labeled “green” increased 12 percent. The study suggests that a simpler labeling system could be more useful to consumers, who are often barraged with too much nutritional data or with health claims that are red herrings — such as when sugary drinks are marketed as having 100 percent of a day’s allowance of Vitamin C.
Indeed, the Mass. General study recorded an impressive 39 percent drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which many nutritionists directly link to America’s obesity crisis. It’s crucial to note, though, that the study also involved changing the “architecture” of where foods are placed. In something of the reverse of a typical supermarket, where candy is placed at the checkout counter and soda and chips at eye level, the researchers placed a higher percentage of green-badged foods at eye level and red-badged ones at lower levels in the cafeteria. Persuading grocery stores to do the same could be a tougher challenge.
The food industry generally opposes stoplight-style labeling, perhaps in some cases because many high-margin, heavily processed foods have little or no nutritional value. Some products are difficult to classify; items such as milk and juice are healthy in moderation but can be overconsumed. Makers of olive oil have expressed concerns about a voluntary stoplight-style labeling system implemented in Britain. Yet American nutritionists and regulators shouldn’t lose sight of the huge advantages of a stop-light system: “Everyone understands it,” says lead researcher Anne Thorndike of Mass. General. “It doesn’t matter what language, culture, or country. It takes you about half a second to figure it out.”