New research suggests that hospitals may be able to encourage cafeteria customers to buy healthier food by adjusting item displays to have traffic light-style green, yellow and red labels based on their level of nutrition.

“Our current results show that the significant changes in the purchase patterns did not fade away as cafeteria patrons became used to them,” study lead author Dr. Anne Thorndike, of the division of general medicine at Massachusetts General in Boston, said in a hospital news release. “This is good evidence that these changes in healthy choices persist over time.”
Green, yellow or red labels appeared on all foods in the hospital cafeteria. Fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein got green labels while red ones appeared on junk food.

The cafeteria also redesigned it’s displays, relocating healthier food products in locations – like at eye level, that were more likely to draw the attention of customers.

The study showed that the changes appeared to produce more purchases of healthy items and fewer of unhealthy ones – especially beverages.
Green labeled items sold at a 12% higher rate compared to before the program, and sales of red-labeled items dropped by 20% during the 2 year study. Sales of the unhealthiest beverages fell by 39%.

“These findings are the most important of our research thus far because they show a food-labeling and product-placement intervention can promote healthy choices that persist over the long-term, with no evidence of ‘label fatigue,'” said Thorndike, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

And she adds, “the next steps will be to develop even more effective ways to promote healthy choices through the food-service environment and translate these strategies to other worksite, institutional or retail settings,” she said. 1/7/13

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