Massachusetts General Hospital’s cafeteria was given a makeover in March, 2010. Foods that were healthy were given a “green light,” while less healthy foods were given a yellow one, and the unhealthiest foods were labeled with a “red light.” Besides this, the healthy foods were placed in easy to access in the cafeteria, and the unhealthy foods were placed below eye level.
In the fight against childhood obesity, the “Green Light, Red Light, Eat Right” method is one that is favored by many experts. However, the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital are wondering if the color-coded foods really help in promoting healthy-eating adults for the long-run.
They conducted a study where “a cash register system tracked all purchases from the hospital’s large cafeteria between December 2009 and February 2012. The first three months of data were used as a baseline for comparison purposes. In March 2010, all food and beverages were labeled with a visible green, yellow or red sticker. Those with a green sticker were put at eye level and in easier-to-reach places. Signs, menu boards and other promotions were used to explain the changes around the hospital.”
The hospital’s cafeteria processes an average of 6,511 transactions daily, and around 2,200 of those transactions were from employees of the hospital who frequented the cafeteria. A year into the study, the team of researchers “analyzed the number of purchases from each color group, and compared them to the baseline totals. They did the same at the end of the 24-month period. The number of red items purchased during the study period decreased from 24% at the baseline to 21% at both the 12 and 24-month follow-ups. The biggest decrease was seen in red-labeled beverages (such as regular soda) – from 27% at baseline to 18% at 24 months. Sales of green items increased from 41% to 46%.”
Therefore, those who ate at the cafeteria bought more water as well as healthier food and drink items during the time the study was being done than they did when the “traffic light system” was not yet in place.
“These results suggest that simple food environment interventions can play a major role in public health policies to reduce obesity,” the study authors write. Dr. Anne Thorndike, the lead study author “wasn’t sure that the changes seen early in the study would last over the two-year period.” The consistent results at 24 months suggest people won’t grow tired of or immune to helpful food labels, she says. “The color coding system can replace more detailed nutrition information, but the labels convey some basic nutrition information in a format that can be quickly interpreted and understood by individuals from diverse backgrounds.”
Despite the positive results, it is not quite clear if it was the “traffic light system” that changed how people ate in the cafeteria, or if it was more dependent on how the items were arranged.
Practically, this system could also work in the home. “Families could utilize this concept by categorizing foods in the household as ‘green’ or ‘red,'” Thorndike says. “For example, you could have a ‘green’ snack drawer or shelf on the refrigerator that the kids could freely choose from, and you could designate a ‘red’ drawer in which the kids would need to ask permission before taking a snack.” Also, you can arrange the food items in your cupboards so that the healthier snacks are placed at the forefront. Cookies, chips, and other cholesterol, fat, and sure-filled snacks, to the dark drawer you go!