Mass General color codes cafeteria food for healthier eating

Massachusetts General Hospital is applying a color-coding approach that has significantly encouraged healthier eating in the cafeteria, the Boston hospital said in a press release Thursday. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, a study found that simple changes such as marking foods and beverages with red, yellow and green labels to indicate the products' level of healthiness, as well as moving around items to be more visible, encouraged cafeteria customers to purchase more nutritional items. By the end of the study, sales of the red (the least healthy) items dropped 14.1 percent, and sales of the green (the most healthy) items increased 5.3 percent.

"We believe this intervention was so successful because it was simple and easy to understand quickly. The labeling did not require any special skills and could be easily interpreted when a customer was in a rush," said study leader Anne Thorndike of the MGH division of general medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "The 'choice architecture' intervention was much more subtle and took greater advantage of the convenience factor. Any of these strategies could be easily translated to other food service environments." Press release