Colorful Eye CandyTue 06 Mar 2012
Story by Mark Lock
Turn off the lights and room-temperature Spaghetti Bolognese tastes awfully like little worms in tomato dirt.
When I was in elementary school, the parents at our school would turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house on Halloween (an American holiday celebrating all things macabre). Luscious “delicacies” for consumption would reside in a pitch black “tasting room”. Parents transformed the most innocent dishes to gruesome nightmares because they understood and exploited an important principle of eating: We not only eat with our mouths but also our motivations, emotions, culture, sight, and touch. When prohibited from using my eyesight in the haunted house, it became clear to me that vision as much as taste was critical to perceiving what we eat.
Naturally color, a visual cue, plays a central role in eating and can serve as a vehicle for instilling healthy eating in children. In the context of child nutrition and school lunch, there are two overlooked insights that can help the Food Revolution:
1) By creating meals around children’s color preferences on a plate, school lunch reformers, parents, and policymakers can increase children’s purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy food.
2) For children, color labels instead of calorie count labels can serve as more effective signals for food that is good for you.
Color in Food Presentation
While Jamie Oliver has often joked on TV about enhancing the viewer experience by providing “smell-a-vision”, viewers still derive considerable pleasure from watching rather than tasting wonderfully plated food. Our visual centers trigger our scent and taste brain regions even when we cannot smell good food. When a plate of food is presented to us, we already form judgments before the food reaches our mouths. As a consequence, making food attractive to children can significantly increase purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy school lunches.
Recently published research shows that preteen children prefer six different colors and seven elements on their plates while adults prefer three different colors and three elements (Zampollo et al., 2012). The difference is drastic and surprising, because everyone falls prey to the self-projection bias, a bias where people tend to think others are more similar to themselves than in actual reality. As adults, we might not understand children’s preferences and tend to plan school menus or family meals according to what adults think looks appetizing. However, adults and children visually perceive food differently!
Schools can increase the effectiveness of their nutritional initiatives with little to no additional cost. Just some smart planning is all that is needed. Meals can be organized so that the mix of foods at a lunch line exhibits a wide range of colors. Luckily, vegetables and fruits offer the most personality in the color department, so pushing tasty and nutritious food can be done effectively just by virtue of serving chopped fruit or veggie mixes. Colorful and easily mass-produced dishes like stews, soups, and curries with a variety of ingredients can prompt children to broaden their palates while piquing their curiosity about the ingredients. The toy and child wear industry have known the power of color for decades, so why not apply the same principles to create literally healthy “eye candy” that excites children before it even reaches their mouths?
Color as a Signal
The lunchroom is where children start to solidify healthy eating habits through consumption but also through informational education. As schools start to label cafeteria food with their nutritional value, a question of how to convey nutritional value to children comes to the fore. A 2012 study suggests that color-coded labels are highly effective in triggering healthy food purchasing behavior (Thorndike et al.) whereas past literature has found calorie count labels to be ineffective.
Color is a more primal call to healthy behavior than numbers are. For example, green, yellow, and red are strongly associated with go, get ready to stop, and stop respectively. Even at young ages, children understand the different emotions behind darker versus lighter colors. Labeling healthy foods with green labels, less healthy foods with yellow, and unhealthy foods with red easily allows kids to build cognitive categories of what is good for you and what is not.
Why is this approach particularly suited for kids? First of all, calorie labeling requires much more complex cognitive processes such as numeracy and knowledge of a healthy person’s average caloric intake. Young children do not possess the necessary skills to process calorie information but can easily process color signals. Color labels also create directional effects of either attracting children to healthy food using a “go” association or steering them away from unhealthy food using a “stop” association. Calorie labels do not have this directional effect.
Color is a powerful tool. It can scare a kid from eating Spaghetti Bolognese for a year. Or it can aid countless children’s development of lifelong healthy eating habits and preferences.
About the author: Mark (Yien Hao) Lock is a researcher at Harvard Business School investigating effects of marketing interventions on healthy eating. His blog Thinking and Eating touches upon the intersection between psychology, marketing, and all aspects of food from consumer behavior to nutrition.
Thorndike, A. N., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. E. (2012). A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 527-533. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300391
Zampollo, F., Kniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., & Shimizu, M. (2012). Food plating preferences of children: the importance of presentation on desire for diversity. Acta Paediatrica, 101(1), 61-66. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2011.02409.x
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