Food labels: Using emoticons better than using colour?

By Joyeeta Basu contact

- Last updated on GMT

The study said that the effectiveness of colour-coded nutritional labels required further scrutiny
The study said that the effectiveness of colour-coded nutritional labels required further scrutiny

Related tags: Nutrition

Emoticons on nutritional labels could have stronger impacts on perceptions of snacks than colour-coded labels, a study has claimed.

Frowning emoticons in particular could be more potent than smiling emoticons at signalling the healthiness and tastiness of cereal bars, said the study published in Appetite.

The combined effects of using emoticons and colours on labels were tested among 955 representative samples of people in the UK. “Overall nutritional labels had limited effects on perceptions and no effects on choice of snack foods​,” said Dr Milica Vasiljevic who led the study.

At a time when obesity has become a worldwide problem, there was a need for innovative population-level interventions to change the obesogenic environments that have contributed to the obesity epidemic, said the team. "One such population-level intervention is nutritional labelling on food products.​"

However, the researchers added that the effectiveness of colour-coded nutritional labels required further scrutiny.

Emoticons and children

As such, frowning emoticons may be more effective at signalling threat and danger arising from unhealthy food, since even very young infants can understand the non-verbal significance of frowning and smiling emoticons. The danger contained in the colour red, as used in traffic lights, may need to be learnt while growing up.

Emoticon labels on unhealthy foods may be more potent for children, who have been found to understand and act upon communicated emotions as early as infancy.

This has important implications for devising policies to tackle the current childhood obesity epidemic​,” said Vasiljevic.

Traffic light labels

Recent studies have reported that using green labels to denote healthier foods, and red to denote less healthy foods, increases consumption of green and decreases consumption of red-labelled foods.

But theresults highlighted the need for further examination of the impact of colour labelling, especially in light of the growing popularity of traffic light labels. “Policy decisions regarding traffic light and other similar colour labels should wait until the effects of such labels are systematically examined and the magnitude and direction of these effects are quantified,​” said the team.

Using emoticon expressions could be used with current nutritional labelling policies for added benefits, as the emotions linked to smiling and frowning tend to be universal, they said.

The study

The team used three emoticons (smiling, frowning and no emoticon), three colour labels (green, red and white) and two food options (chocolate bar and cereal bar). Participants were asked to rate the level of desirability, healthiness, tastiness, and calorific content of a snack bar they viewed.

Regardless of label, participants rated the chocolate as tastier and more desirable when compared to the cereal bar, and the cereal bar as healthier than the chocolate bar, said the team.

Results showed that a frowning emoticon on a white background decreased perceptions of healthiness and tastiness of the cereal bar, but not the chocolate bar.

FoodNavigator contacted the researchers prior to publication to ask how realistic it was that companies would use such emoticons on-pack. However, they were not immediately available to comment. 

Last year, France's health minister had put forward plans for the country’s own ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling system​, while the European Commission started investigations whether the UK’s existing ‘traffic light’ front-of-pack labelling was compatible with EU law. If it was found lacking, an infringement procedure, referral to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and possible fines could follow​, it had said.

Study: Appetite

doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.03.034

‘Making food labels social. The impact of colour of nutritional labels and injunctive norms on perceptions and choice of snack foods’

Authors: M. Vasiljevic, et al

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