May Contain Artificial Colours

Walking down the aisle – Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Nutritional information on the front of food packaging can be presented in one of two ways: using the traffic light system, or as guideline daily allowances (GDAs), which display the amount of a nutrient in the product in grams, and as a percentage of the recommended daily maximum. Supermarkets which display the traffic light system say it is easier to understand and process at a glance. The comparatively complex numbers in the GDA mean little to the average consumer, so they are susceptible to be influenced by other information. Those supermarkets who display GDAs have an opportunity to use a behavioural ‘nudge’ to make their customers feel better about their products.

The nudge is akin to Batesian mimicry in the natural world, in that the mimic displays meaningless colouration which is meaningful in the species being copied. If only GDAs are being displayed, the background to the figures is free to be coloured in as the supermarket chooses. By imitating the traffic light colour scheme, a false impression of the nutritional information may be created. However, this cannot be done so faithfully to the original as to arouse suspicion. A balance must be struck therefore, between activating the traffic light concept in the consumer’s mind, and staying on the right side of the regulations. As such, the colour scheme should remain constant across all products, to avoid accusations of manipulation.

Naturally, the desire will be to make the product appear as healthy as possible. This would result in a uniform green background across the categories, but this nutritional profile wouldn’t be feasible for the vast majority of products, and may not trigger the association with the traffic light system. The nudge therefore should have a mix of green, orange and red to look like the traffic light system, but still have a relatively healthy profile to entice consumers.

The green background should be behind the categories of most concern to the health-conscious consumer – this is likely to be fat, especially for those watching their weight. GDAs are displayed for both overall fat and saturated fat, and unsurprisingly these two values often fall into the same traffic light colour. To create a realistic profile therefore, both types of fat should be green. This creates a problem though – if the colour scheme is presented to the authorities as meaningless,  they may ask why some categories are the same colour and some different? A solution is to make the shades of green slightly different, so that the effect is sufficiently similar to the traffic light system, but not too obviously.

The remaining categories of salt and sugar must be given orange and red to complete the effect. It is arguable which is more important to the consumer. Sugar may be in the high category for more products, including relatively healthy products like fruit juice, yoghurt and other products containing fruit. If the sugars are derived from fruit (like fructose), they aren’t as unhealthy as added sugar (like glucose), but can still push a product into the red zone. For these reasons it is more realistic and desirable to use the red background for sugar than salt. This leaves salt on the orange background, which as the indicator of a medium amount, is believable for a majority of products.

The GDA system also includes a category for calories, which is useful for the mimic, as at this stage it looks suspiciously like a traffic light system, with only red, orange and greens. Giving calories another colour makes this less conspicuous. Blue is good as it is unobtrusive and close to green, implying healthiness. In fact, consumers may think that calories are separate, and the other categories are using the traffic light system, as the calorie category is the only one not given in grams. To make the association with the traffic light system less obvious, the colours should be toned down slightly, perhaps by using pastel colours, and the greens could be made blue-greens.

Overall then, the GDA mimic of the traffic light system would suggest a product is high in sugar, medium in salt and low in fats. This is a profile which is feasible for products like breakfast cereals, some bakery items, biscuits and desserts, and some ready meals. But the effect could be successful even for products which obviously don’t fit the profile – a customer is unlikely to examine every category, and may just want to know how much fat is in a product.

Looking at a figure of 17% for the fat GDA, would the average consumer know if this falls in the low, medium or high category for a snack, or for a ready meal? Might they be influenced by the background colour of the figure, by thinking the traffic light system is being used? Even if a consumer doesn’t think it is being used, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that decisions are based largely on subconscious processing. Might the background colour have a subconscious effect on health judgements of the product? Could the pastel colours be used to connote lower levels of each nutrient, as is commonly done with low-sugar/fat products and healthy options?  These are easy questions to answer empirically, and companies answer exactly this sort of question through market research.

If a supermarket were to use this mimicking technique, it may lead its customers to make unhealthier choices than they otherwise would, and think that the products they buy are healthier than they actually are. This would lead to a double whammy for the supermarket: its customers enjoy their food more, and believe they are eating more healthily than they are. The supermarket’s food is thus more associated with both tastiness and healthiness than that of its rivals – two huge advantages in the competition for customers.

The GDA system on its own is complex and difficult to understand compared to the traffic light system. When combined with traffic light mimicry, however, it could become actively misleading, at the will of the supermarket. The solution is simple: make the traffic light system mandatory. The nudge may only work on health-conscious consumers, and may only have a small effect each time, but across millions of consumers over the course of years, the cumulative effect could be enormous. After all – every little helps.


One comment on “May Contain Artificial Colours

  1. Pingback: May contain artificial colours: Part II « Expansive Psychology

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