The Fascinating Way Color Can Affect The Food We Eat

A game of red light, green light, anyone?

At a recent visit to a chain restaurant, I noticed that the description of each menu item included information about calories and fat. I immediately lost my appetite, but eventually relented and ordered a salad. On the way out, I asked the manager whether the new nutritional information had changed what customers were ordering. 

“Not in the least,” he said. “Nobody seems to care.”

If you haven’t already seen it, fat and calorie information is now required for all restaurants with 20 or more locations (and on vending machines owned by companies that operate 20 or more machines). The FDA’s goal is pretty clear: Stem the tide of the rising obesity epidemic—the same goal they’ve had since 1994, when they required labels on packaged food that list a product’s calories, serving size, number of servings per package, and more.

Unfortunately, those well-intentioned labels didn’t work in ’94 (In fact, over the last 20 years, obesity rates for both adults and children have roughly doubled) and they’re not going to work now. That restaurant manager was absolutely right: Nobody cares. The problem is that most of us don’t really understand what all that info on fat and calories actually means.  

“There have been high hopes that menu labeling could be a key tool to help combat high obesity levels in this country,” says Julie Downs, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the lead author of a study on the effects of food labeling. “Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t appear to be helping to reduce consumption very much.”

But all is not lost. Several recent studies have identified a few alternative ways of presenting nutritional information that will increase the chance that people will make healthier food choices.

Red Light, Green Light

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In a 2015 study at the University of Bonn, researchers discovered that consumers who see a simple traffic light symbol (red=an unhealthy food choice in terms of fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar; green=a good choice; yellow=somewhere in-between) are more likely to buy healthier foods than consumers who see only the usual labels with info on calories, grams, and serving sizes. Using functional MRIs to analyze subjects’ brain activity while making purchase decisions, the researchers discovered that a red traffic label activated a part of the brain that is important in determining self-control.

"The traffic light label appears to enable the study participants to better resist unhealthy foods compared to a label containing the traditional information on grams and percentages of the particular ingredients,” said Bernd Weber, a professor in the University’s Center for Economics and Neuroscience, in a University press release. “A traffic light label probably implicitly increases the weight consumers place on healthiness in their decision."

Research in the UK, Australia, and other countries has found consumers are far better able to identify healthier food choices when they see traffic light labels instead of traditional text-and-number labels. Traffic light labeling also increases consumer demand for healthier foods. Since traffic light labels were introduced in the UK, sales of breakfast cereals with green or yellow lights grew twice as fast as the overall market, and sales of frozen meals with red lights have dropped by 35%, according to a 2011 study.

The Candle Cure

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Lights may make a difference in people’s dietary choices in other ways as well. Researchers Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Koert van Ittersum of the University of Georgia took over (with permission, of course) a Hardee’s restaurant in Champaign, Illinois. Out of 62 groups of customers, about half were directed to the regular seating area, which featured bright lights, loud music, and the usual less-then-comfortable fast-food tables. The other half were directed to a different seating area, one outfitted more like a higher-end eatery, with white table cloths, art on the walls, jazz music, and candles on the table. 

Both groups ordered the same amount of food, but the mood-lighting group consumed 133 fewer calories than those in the loud-music group. They also liked the food better.

Walking It Off

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And colors aren't the only variable when it comes to affecting a person's food choice. 

In 2013, a team of researchers led by Sunaina Dowray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took a group of more than 800 people and randomly gave them one of four nearly identical menus. One group got a menu that had no nutritional information at all. Another group got the same menu plus calorie data. The third group got a menu with calories, plus a listing of how many minutes the customer would have to walk to burn off those calories. And the last group got the menu with calories and how many miles of walking it would take to burn off the calories. 

The differences between the four groups were huge.

The menu-only group ordered an average of 1,020 calories (roughly half a day’s worth of calories for most people). The menu+calories group ordered an average of 927 calories. The menu+calories+minutes-of-exercise group ordered 916 calories. And finally, the menu+calories+miles-of-walking group ordered only 826 calories. 

Sunaina Dowray’s article was published in the journal Appetite. You can see an abstract here.

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