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Green Calorie Labels Disguise Unhealthy Foods

Update Date: Mar 12, 2013 10:25 AM EDT

Candy bars, potato chips and other foods are perceived as healthier if they come in green calorie labels, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cornell University found that consumers are more likely to perceive a candy bar as more healthful when it has a green calorie label compared with when it had a red one, even though the number of calories in both candy bars is the same.

Additionally, the study, which will be published in a forthcoming print issue of Health Communication, found that green labels increase perceived healthfulness of foods, especially among consumers who prioritize healthy eating.

"More and more, calorie labels are popping up on the front of food packaging, including the wrappers of sugary snacks like candy bars. And currently, there's little oversight of these labels," researcher Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication and director of Cornell's Social Cognition and Communication Lab, said in a statement.

"Our research suggests that the color of calorie labels may have an effect on whether people perceive the food as healthy, over and above the actual nutritional information conveyed by the label, such as calorie content," he added.

The study involved 93 university students. Researchers asked participants to imagine that they were hungry and see a candy bar while waiting in a grocery checkout lane.  The participants were then shown an image of a candy bar with either a red or a green calorie label.

Participants were asked whether the candy bar, compared to others, contains more or fewer calories and how healthy it is. 

Participants perceived the green-labeled candy bar as more healthful than the red-labeled candy bar.

Researchers then repeated the experiment with 39 online participants who looked at either green or white labels.  Once again, researchers found that the candy bar with the green label was perceived as being more healthful than the candy bar with the white label.  

"The green calorie labels buffer relatively poor nutrition foods from appearing less healthful among those especially concerned with healthy eating," Schuldt said.

"As government organizations including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider developing a uniform front-of-package labeling system for the U.S. marketplace, these findings suggest that the design and color of the labels may deserve as much attention as the nutritional information they convey," he concluded. 

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