The Power of Color: How it influences our perceptions of what is “healthy”

by Haifa Haroon on April 6, 2013

What do you think of when you see (or hear the word) “green”?

We associate colors with certain moods, behaviors and events. The associations we have about colors, especially green, are almost automatic – “being green”, recycling, the environment, Al Gore etc. We also have a learned response to colors. Green = go. Yellow = slow. Red = stop. So, can we use these associations to influence healthy eating habits?

The UK Food Standards Agency is trying to incorporate this concept as part of their effort to standardize front-of-package (FOP) nutrition labels. You’ve probably noticed these small labels on the packaging for your bread or cereal. FOP nutrition labels have been used for several years by some food manufacturers in both the US and UK. However, it hasn’t been standardized in the US, which means that companies can provide different information, which may or may not be useful to the shopper.

Courtesy of Food Standards Agency

Adding a traffic light label would indicate the level of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in the item. So, the idea is that a red label would indicate “high”, yellow “medium” and green would mean “low” levels. The color coded label is simple, easy to understand and would ideally help shoppers make more informed decisions at the grocery store.

Although the exact design of the traffic light label can vary, studies have reported that they are more useful to the consumer than the current FOP nutrition labels. However, the standardized color coded label hasn’t been officially implemented in the UK yet. It has received a lot of criticism from food manufacturers. This makes sense – if their products are “unhealthy”, these new labels would basically require them to advertise against themselves. Studies have also shown that labeling foods as “low fat” or “low cal” results in people eating more, which may be a concern with the traffic light labels.

Facts Up Front
Courtesy of

Most of the FOP labels in the US are part of the Facts Up Front label, which was initiated by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI), who represent companies that account for 80% of food and beverage products on the market. This white label includes calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and up to 2 “nutrients to encourage”, such as fiber and potassium. However, this effort has been criticized because the GMA and FMI were also in talks with the FDA, White House and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) about creating a standardized labeling system. The “nutrients to encourage” may also make unhealthy foods seem healthier than they actually are (see halo effect).

FOP labels in the US aren’t all without color though. The Twix bar I’m eating right now has a small green calorie label on the front and a Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) on the back – also in a pleasant green – which lists calories, total fat, saturated fat, sugars and sodium. Kellogg cereals also include their “nutrition at a glance” labels on top right corner in similar shade of green.

Green vs. Red Labels

A recent study looked whether using a nutrition label that was green, which is associated with the concept of “natural” (eg. USDA organic food label) and by extension health, affects how healthy people perceive it to be. Schuldt found that a candy bar with a green calorie label was perceived to be healthier than the identical item with a red label. In a related study, participants that placed importance on healthy eating were more likely to perceive the green labeled candy bar more health than with a white label. Although the study has limitations – relatively small sample size (study 1 = 93, study 2 = 39), not necessarily generalizable to other “foods”, didn’t measure behavior – the results suggest that a simple change in the color of a nutrition label may influence a person’s perception of how “healthy” something is and possibly affect their eating habits.

Food For Thought: The FOP labels should ideally help people make informed decisions about their food. But, given the current variability in the information and design provided by different manufacturers  – could there be a counterproductive effect on consumers? And, would we be better off just standardizing the FOP nutrition labels? 

Angela April 16, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Ha – it would be interesting to see whether the green/red labelling difference would also reflect in the sales. While the chocolate bars were perceived as healthier, would people also show a preference for buying them? Or is it just down to having a craving for a particular chocolate bar, no matter what it contains? On the whole, I am finding ‘colour psychology’ a very interesting field of research. When I studied design, there was surprisingly little research on it, at least with regard to design. The only literature I could find was from Germany (with reference to Goethe’s colour theory!). I have a feeling this may have changed since the 90s…

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