Physicians, government officials and health advocates have been trying for years to find ways to get the general populace to eat healthier. There have been national advertising campaigns, public health initiatives and constant warnings from various medical groups. Yet rates of obesity and continue to rise.
Now the results of one recent study seem to suggest that one of the most powerful weapons in the effort to improve nationwide eating habits could be incredibly simple.1 By employing a “traffic light” labeling method – green labels for healthy foods, red labels for junk foods and yellow labels for items that fall in the middle – Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that people’s buying habits changed rather dramatically.
Health food labeling study’s methods and results
The study began in March 2010. Massachusetts General decided to overhaul the way it labeled and displayed foods in its cafeteria, turning to simple red, green and yellow markers to indicate the nutrition levels of different foods. While this kind of method has been shown in the past to be effective with children, doctors at the hospital wanted to know what role it would play in adults’ eating choices.
On top of the labeling, healthier foods were also placed at eye-level, while less nutritious items were moved to harder to reach places.
Beginning in December 2009, hospital administrators started tracking transactions through a cash register system. The labels weren’t used for the first three months in order to establish a baseline. Then, in March of the next year, the labels were introduced and several signs were put up around the cafeteria to explain the changes. Over the next two years, administrators analyzed sales data at 12 month intervals and compared it to the baseline numbers.2
With an average of more than 6,500 transactions daily, the cafeteria proved to be a fertile testing ground, and results of the study showed a marked, consistent movement toward healthier eating habits among customers. Sales of red items fell from 24 percent of total sales at the baseline to 21 percent at both the 12-month and 24-month follow-ups, with red-labeled beverages experiencing the biggest decline, going from 27 percent to 18 percent.
Sales of food and beverage items with green labels rose from 41 percent to 46 percent over the course of the study. And hospital employees showed the biggest eating habit improvements, decreasing their purchases of red items by 20 percent.
Lessons to be learned from food labeling study
The biggest takeaway from the study isn’t so much that people’s eating habits trended healthier, but that the results were sustained over the two years it was conducted. That sustainability is what makes the study’s authors, who published their findings in the Jan. 7 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, most excited about the results.3
“Our current results show that the significant changes in the purchase patterns … did not fade away as cafeteria patrons became used to them,” study lead author Dr. Anne Thorndike of Massachusetts General said in a news release. “This is good evidence that these changes in healthy choices persist over time. These findings are the most important of our research thus far because they show a food-labeling and product-placement intervention can promote healthy choices that persist over the long term, with no evidence of ‘label fatigue.'”
While the labeling and display methods didn’t lead to overwhelmingly dramatic changes in behavior, they did prove effective. Most importantly, the study’s authors and others who have viewed the results believe these policies could be especially effective in many different food service settings – from home kitchens to college dormitories – because of their simplicity.
Detailed nutritional information and general education will always be part of public and private health policies and goals, but incorporating smaller measures can also be part of solving the health crisis that is obesity.
Labeling study’s impact on health care careers
The study showed that it doesn’t take enormous informational campaigns and physician cajoling to change people’s eating behaviors. Health professionals like certified medical assistants and pharmacy technicians can help their patients live healthier lives with simple suggestions. Advise them to label foods at home and store healthier foods at eye level in their refrigerators.
If you’re a health professional, or are considering becoming one, you can also understand the results as an indication that, while advanced medicine is crucial to better health outcomes, sometimes basic techniques can be nearly as effective. The study also showed that you don’t have to be a doctor to affect change in patient behavior. Smart, common sense solutions can be instituted by anybody in the health field.
1 MacVean, Mary, “‘Traffic Light’ Food Labels Changed Buying Habits, Study Finds,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sn-traffic-light-food-labels-20140107,0,1571694.story#axzz2pmMw86PS
2 Wilson, Jacque, “Red Light, Green Light: Food Choice Made Easier,” CNN.com, Jan. 7, 2014. http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/07/red-light-green-light-food-choice-made-easier/
3 Dotinga, Randy, “Labeling Food with ‘Stop’ or ‘Go’ Colors,” WebMD.com, Jan. 7, 2014. http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20140107/labeling-food-with-stop-or-go-colors-might-spur-healthier-diet