Red Light, Green Light?

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About a week ago I came across an article published by CNN Health entitled Red light, green light: Food choice made easier. The article describes a study performed in a Massachusetts hospital cafeteria, where foods were labeled with green stickers for the most healthy items, yellow stickers for less healthy items, and red stickers for the least healthy options. Items with green stickers were put in easily visible and easy-to-reach locations.

It’s a fairly simple concept; even a child can understand the “green means go, red means stop” analogy. In fact, the study was based on a book by Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist, designed to help parents and kids make smarter dietary choices in their own homes.

The hospital study was geared toward adults rather than children, and about a third of the purchases were made by hospital employees who used the cafeteria regularly. After 24 months, the study showed a decrease in red-sticker purchases, from 24% to 21% (and an even greater decrease in red-sticker beverage purchases), while green-sticker purchases increased from 41% to 46%. Employee purchases showed the greatest improvement.

The takeaway, at least according to the study’s authors as quoted in the CNN article, is that “simple food environment interventions can play a major role in public health policies to reduce obesity.” However, the study’s lead author, Dr. Anne Thorndike, does state that while the traffic-light system can quickly and easily convey a brief nutritional overview, it cannot and should not replace more detailed nutrition information.

I’m inclined to agree with Thorndike’s latter statement. While the colored label strategy may work well on a smaller scale – in a hospital cafeteria setting or your family’s pantry – the assumption made in the takeaway above is that it could potentially be applied on a wider scale – in supermarkets, for example.

Except that… well, supermarkets already do this. Or rather, food corporations do. It’s what Michele Simon, a public health attorney, calls “nutriwashing”. Just as foods can be “greenwashed” by the food industry, they can also be nutriwashed. It’s when highly-processed junk food at your neighborhood grocery store comes with a “whole grain” label stamped on the box. Or when food companies such as Kraft label their products “Sensible Solutions”, or PepsiCo slaps a “Smart Spot” sticker on their packaging. In her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How To Fight Back, Simon explains how companies will go to great lengths to persuade health-conscious consumers to continue buying their products, even if it means developing their own (misleading) guidelines for “healthy” eating. Health-minded consumers are simply more likely to buy a product if it has a healthy label attached to it.

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So how is the traffic light analogy any different? If this strategy fell into the wrong hands – co-opted by the food industry’s PR machine – “green light” labels would cease to mean anything at all.

Indeed, Dr. Dolgoff, originator of the “green-light, red-light” concept, has come under criticism because her own book advocates green labels for some questionable “foods”, including Lucky Charms, white breads and pastas, candy corn, M&Ms, etc. It makes you wonder if her research was sponsored by a corporate source; it would not be unheard of. (To be fair, I have not read her book myself, and there have been many positive reviews as well.)

To apply the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” system on a large scale would require an independent governing body – one which is not influenced by Big Food lobbyists – to make decisions on how to designate labels. Judging by the state of labels in our supermarkets now, and the power Big Food has over the market, this would be no easy task.

But perhaps the takeaway should be this: the strategy can work. It can work in your own home if accompanied by a little research and education. It may work particularly well in teaching children about diet and limits. It may not solve the wider problem of obesity, which affects a third of Americans. But if you ask me, it’s probably as good a place to start as any.

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