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It’s easy being green — at least that’s what food-marketing execs have come to realize. A new study suggests people are more likely to consider food with a green nutrition label “healthier” than snacks decked out with white or red labels. Have all those playground games of “Red Light, Green Light” gone to our heads? Or has society’s political, environmental, and nutritional emphasis on all things “green” given us a Pavlovian response to this specific color?

What’s the Deal?

A Cornell researcher ran two related experiments on university students to determine how the color of food labels can affect consumer behaviorDoes green mean healthy? Nutrition label color affects perceptions of healthfulness. Schuldt JP. Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Health Communication. 2013 February 27.. First, he showed 93 students photos of candy bars, some with red labels and some with green labels. The calorie count on the label was the same for both bars, but the students considered the green-labeled candy more healthful than the red-labeled version. After seeing how students reacted to nutritional labels in person, the researcher ran his experiment online. Thirty-nine online participants were shown candy bars, this time with green labels and white labels. The online survey-takers were asked to rate on scale of 1 (don’t really care) to 7 (super important) the extent to which they considered healthiness of food before buying and eating. Interestingly, the more the participants cared about eating wholesome food, the more likely they were to consider the white-labeled candy bar as less healthy. Such was not the case with the green-labeled bars.

Is it Legit?

Maybe. The small sample size and self-reported answers in the second experiment make it hard to draw lasting conclusions from this story. Also, the study didn’t explain why students associated the green nutrition labels with healthier choices. Is it as simple as the knee-jerk reaction that green means “go”? Or is it because green is typically associated with healthy foods like fruits and vegetables?

Regardless of its potential limitations, this research is yet another example of how marketing and labeling can make a big difference in how we understand the nutritional value of our foodDoes food marketing need to make us fat? A review and solutions. Chandon P, Wansink B. INSEAD, Fontainebleu, France. Nutritional Review. 2012 October; 70(10):571-593.. For better or for worse, how food is presented and packaged on the shelves makes a big difference for our dinner tables. Food companies practice smart labeling by displaying bright colors, making exaggerated health claims, and listing fancy ingredients (that may or may not actually be there). Hopefully this research can teach market-goers to be a bit more careful when perusing boxes and packages at the supermarket.

Do you think colored food packaging changes what you consider “healthy?” Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.