Putting Elmo’s picture on produce could motivate children to choose healthier foods over less nutritious options. For teens and adults, that same motivation could come from something as simple as green, red and yellow — the colors of a traffic light.

Massachusetts General Hospital released Traffic-Light Labels and Choice Architecture, a study that outlines the results of color-coding the food choices in the cafeteria where employees and visitors eat.

Green labels were put on foods that were deemed healthy choices. Foods considered less healthy were given yellow labels. Unhealthy choices were labeled in red. In addition to the color-coding, the hospital put the green-labeled choices at eye level and the less healthy and unhealthy choices were put below the healthy options.

Part of the study was to determine if any positive changes could be maintained over years, and the results are encouraging.

Before color-coding the food, they tracked sales for three months. The color-coding changes happened in March of 2010 and sales were tracked for an additional two years.

At the end of two years, the decrease of sales of all red-labeled items was 20 percent and the increase in all green-labeled items was 12 percent. The largest change was seen in beverage sales. The decrease of sales of beverages with red labels was 39 percent. Green labeled beverage sales increased by 10 percent.

“These results,” notes the study, “suggest that simple food environment changes can play a major role in public health policies to reduce obesity.” It also suggests the study is evidence that people will not develop “fatigue” from food labeling and “revert to previous unhealthy choices.”

In the battle to get people to choose healthier foods, could red, green, and yellow stickers plus moving the placement of the food be a simple piece of a complicated puzzle? Would this work in school cafeterias?  Work cafeterias? Our home kitchens?

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