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Date: Oct 10, 2016

Traffic light colors increase sensitivity to health Researchers at the University of Bonn investigate the influence of taste and nutritional value on the selection of food products

Which products end up in your shopping basket? If the packaging information features food traffic light colors, fewer products are chosen purely based on taste and more based on health aspects, compared to nutritional information consisting of numbers only. This has been shown in a study by researchers at the University of Bonn, which is now published in the journal “Judgment and Decision Making”.

Chocolate or apple? Most people are in two minds when buying food: one motivation is to purchase whatever tastes best – usually something that is sweet or fatty. At the same time, we know attention should be paid to health factors and, for instance, we should make sure that we don’t consume too many calories. “Often, this deliberation process favors foods that taste good,” says Prof. Bernd Weber from the Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs) at the University of Bonn. In contrast, products that don’t taste as good but may be healthier are much more likely to be left on the shelf.

Does it have to be this way? In a study, scientists from the University of Bonn worked with Prof. Ian Krajbich from the Ohio State University (USA) to investigate whether information about food components can convince consumers to increasingly reach for healthier foods. A total of 44 adult participants were first asked to what extent they like 100 different foods. Half of these products – including chips, chocolate bars and cookies – were rather unhealthy. The other half – such as rice waffles, crispbread and natural yoghurt – were healthier. The participants were not allowed to eat anything for four hours before the actual test so that everyone came to the study hungry.

Choice between tasty vs. healthy products

On the computer screen, participants were asked to choose between two products, one healthy and one rather unhealthy. For half of the products, the choice options were labeled with standard numeric nutritional information only. The other half of the product pairs was labeled with color-coded nutrition labels. Red indicated, for instance, a high amount of fat, sugar or salt – while green indicated a low amount. When assessing the data, the scientists took into account the personal preferences of the participants: is the product among the person’s favorite foods?

The participants were guided mostly by taste with the standard nutrition labels. “However, if this information was combined with the food traffic light colors, health aspects of the product played a greater role in their choices,” says lead author Laura Enax from CENs at the University of Bonn. On average, people were more likely to choose the healthy items with the traffic-light labels.

Consumers pay attention to content as well as traffic light colors

The researchers also tested whether the subjects were only guided by the colors. For this reason, they tested the effect of a single-nutrient label, which was either green or red. “The effects here are much smaller compared with the full ‘nutrient traffic light’,” says Laura Enax.

In a previously conducted study, scientists from the CENS showed that traffic light colors act as an “amplifier” to areas of consumers’ brains responsible for self-control. “The current study tested how a better balance can be achieved between taste-related preferences and health aspects when making a purchase,” explains Prof. Weber. “The traffic light colors seem to have a much more favorable effect here compared to pure numeric information.”

Publication: Salient Nutrition Labels increase the Integration of Health Attributes in Food Decision-Making, Journal “Judgment and Decision Making”, Internet: http://journal.sjdm.org/16/16620/jdm16620.pdf

Media contact:

Prof. Bernd Weber
Center for Economics and Neuroscience
University of Bonn
Tel. +49 (0)228/6885262
E-mail: [Email protection active, please enable JavaScript.]

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