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Red Light, Green Light: Can Traffic Symbols Influence Food Choices?

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Drivers are hard wired to associate the colors of traffic lights &ndash red, yellow, and green &ndash with specific behaviors, like "stop," "slow down" or "keep going."

The psychology behind these associations may also be a key to changing buying behavior and food choices, according to a new study published in Obesity.

By comparing the effectiveness of colored stickers to text-based nutrition labels, researchers found that consumers were more likely to avoid high-calorie foods when these foods were labeled with a red "traffic signal" indicating that the food was high in salt, sugar or fat.

"This is the first study that analyzes the effect that traffic light signals have on the evaluation processes in the consumer's brain when making a purchase decision," said Dr. Bernd Weber of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs) at the University of Bonn, in Bonn, Germany.

Traffic light acts as a 'reinforcer'

Participants in the study were asked to think about what price they wanted to pay for a particular product, while their brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Results showed that participants were willing to pay more money for the same food product when there was a green traffic light label, indicating the food was healthy, than if the food simply had a traditional nutrition label.

Similarly, not-so-healthy foods with red labels were associated with a decreased willingness to pay for the product.

According to the researchers, consumers might do better resisting unhealthy foods if they were associated with particular colors, depending on the health profile of the food.

"The traffic light label appears to enable the study participants to better resist unhealthy foods compared to a label containing the traditional information on grams and percentages of the particular ingredients," Weber said. "A traffic light label probably implicitly increases the weight consumers place on healthiness in their decision."

Source: Source: AlphaGalileo