Traffic light labels on food products to reverse obesity?

Tuesday, 16 July, 2019

Traffic light labels on food products to reverse obesity?

Labelling food choices in ‘traffic light’ symbols corresponding to their health value reduces the number of calories purchased by employees, reveals a study by Massachusetts General Hospital. Published in JAMA Network Open, the study showed that the dietary changes from the traffic light labels were sustained over two years.

Green labels indicated the healthiest foods, yellow indicated less healthy foods and red represented unhealthy foods, depending on main ingredient (fruit, vegetable or whole grain) and saturated fat content. The researchers found that more green-labelled foods were purchased while purchases of red-labelled foods decreased.

Employee ID numbers were used to track the food purchases of 5695 employees at MGH cafeterias. With a three-month baseline period, researchers tracked purchases after the coloured labels were added and again after product-placement changes made healthier choices more accessible. Data was collected and studied over a two-year period after the introduction of the coloured labels.

The study found that the biggest calorie decreases were seen in red-labelled food purchases. Employees were consuming fewer calories at work and improving the quality of the calories they were purchasing. The reduction of calories for employees who visited the cafeteria frequently equated to up to 2 kg lost over time. However, lead author Anne N Thorndike stressed, “This is not a weight loss program.” Data shows that people gain between 0.5 and 1 kg per year; a program like this could aid people in maintaining a healthy weight, thereby slowly reversing the obesity epidemic.

Obesity is becoming more prevalent across all industries, including health care. Employees often acquire meals at work, with a recent survey revealing workplace food is high in calories from saturated fats and sugars, consisting of items such as pizza, regular soft drinks, biscuits and brownies. Strategies for reducing intake of non-nutritious calories during the work day could help address the rise of obesity across the world.

Prior research evaluating the impact of food labelling interventions on calories purchased has been either lab-based or cross-sectional, assessing a single food or meal choice. “The difference with our study is that it looked at real-world purchases by employees over several months,” said Thorndike.

Thorndike believes the labels helped employees to make the healthier choices they wanted to make. “A red label is a reminder that something is not healthy at the time you’re about to make the purchase,” she said. Red labels save time, indicating unhealthy choices efficiently for consumers who don’t have time to look at the nutrition-facts panel. The coloured labels allow employees to make the right choice, enabling consistency and efficiency.

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