Sunday, February 5, 2012

A simple way for people to know what's healthy

With a dizzying array of food products available at the grocery store, it can be hard to know what's healthy and what isn't. Some foods are labeled "natural," but may not be any healthier than an "unnatural" food. Some foods that are labeled "low-fat" may actually be really high in sugar. There are good fats and bad fats, different daily values for different people... It's confusing, and even though packaged foods have nutrition labels, people aren't motivated to turn the package around and examine the label. How many of us have the time to interpret nutrition labels on every product they're buying? I don't. They're long and confusing.

The food industry doesn't want things any simpler though. If labels were simpler, it would be pretty obvious that frequently buying a huge bag of "all natural" sour cream and onion chips is a bad idea. Or that a giant bottle of "throw-back" soda "made with real sugar" isn't actually good for you. If labels were easier to understand, the food companies would lose money on unhealthy products, which is their worst nightmare. Last year, the Institute of Medicine was really pushing food companies to put simple labels on the front of packages. Here's what the food industry decided to go with:


While that label looks pretty, it's really just as confusing as the nutrition label on the side of the box. All those numbers and categories don't tell you whether or not the food is good for you. I really don't think they are going to discourage busy adults from buying things that are bad for them. And kids? Even with nutrition education, there is no way these labels will help them learn what to eat.

But there is an alternative! Check out this really interesting study posted on Feedback Solutions for Obesity. Researchers labeled foods in a hospital cafeteria with one of three labels. A big green dot for healthy foods, a yellow dot for somewhat healthy foods, and a red dot for foods that are bad for you. Like this:


And it turned out to be so simple that it worked! Sales of the red dot foods went down, especially with unhealthy beverages. Sales of green dot foods (the healthiest ones) went up. They also did another study where they made the green dot foods more prominent on the shelf. That helped more, decreasing sales of red dot foods even further.

I am a huge fan of this labeling method. The simple dots mean that people will immediately know which foods are healthiest for them. The red dots catch your attention and make you think twice about buying that product. No, there is nothing wrong with buying a red dot food sometimes. You won't get penalized, no alarms will go off, if you buy a red dot food. But theoretically it could make you think twice about how often you buy those red dot foods.

Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to using this dot system will be getting people to agree on what qualifies as a green dot food and what has to be labeled a red dot food. I can definitely picture Pepsi throwing a fit when their soda is labeled with a red dot. But at some point they'll have to come to terms with the fact that they put a lot of money into foods that are bad for us.

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