retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Today’s topic is the “emolabel” and evidence that a simple smiley face can be an effective weapon in the fight against the childhood obesity epidemic.

A recent study in the journal Appetite found that even young children were more likely to make healthy food choices when grocery shelves were labeled with emojis indicating a happy face equals healthy and sad means not healthy.

The study was led by Dr. Greg Privitera, research chair at the Center for Behavioral Health Research for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies. Noting that childhood obesity rates have doubled since 1980, he challenged the industry assumption that there was no need to provide nutritional labeling for children since they lacked basic health literacy.

“Children are wonderfully brilliant at emotion,” he said, and “emolabeling” is an effective teaching tool.

In the study, the children - who ranged from kindergarten-age through grade 5 - were given a lesson on how to interpret the emojis and then sent “grocery shopping.” In one aisle, the 12 foods were emolabeled with smiley faces on healthy fruits and vegetables versus frowns on high calorie options such as chips and cookies. The other aisle was identical, minus the colorful labels.

Said Privitera: “The key takeaway from this study was the incredible effect the emolabels had on food choice. Children were 83% more likely to choose at least one additional healthy food with the emolabels compared to the same foods without the emolabels.”

A recent similar study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that kids at an inner-city school in Cincinnati made better nutritional choices after green smiley face emojis were employed in the cafeteria. They bought less chocolate milk and more plain nonfat milk and fruit, and average vegetable purchases in the school’s cafeteria rose by 62 percent.

As recently noted on MNB, the Guiding Stars nutritional guidance program just celebrated its 10th birthday. Currently in more than 1,500 U.S. and Canadian supermarkets, Guiding Stars rates good, best and better-for-you foods with one, two and three stars, based on a publicly available algorithm.

These approaches may sound simple, but they work. Any effort to make nutritional choices easier to understand is valuable – whether you are a nine-year-old in a school cafeteria or a small-print challenged 59-year-old (that would be me) attempting to read a microscopic label in the supermarket.

Obviously, manufacturers and retailers will not be slapping sad-face emoji stickers on foods laden with lots of salt, fat, sugar and unhealthy calories. Privitera notes that future studies are needed to evaluate the utility of using “health categories” as opposed to healthy versus unhealthy to determine how emolabels should be used for all food types.

Not surprisingly, an independent study found that the Guiding Stars’ influence boosted sales of products that are rated more nutritious and the expense of those that are not.

I think consumers are going to increasingly demand both more transparency and greater accessibility in nutritional labeling, whether it is through stars, emojis or the next new thing, and the manufacturers and retailers that deliver it will come out ahead.

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