Are you being manipulated at the supermarket? Unless you shop with your eyes closed, the answer is yes.

For example, food manufacturers know that certain colors will convey automatic associations to most shoppers—and they are cleverly influencing your buying decisions with the use of color. Red means stop (it gets your attention) but also signifies romance…white implies purity and fewer calories…and black, in the right context, connotes sophistication and very high-quality. (For proof, go to the high-end condiment shelf at your market—and behold the many black labels.)

The newest example: The color green, which traditionally has been associated with the outdoors, is now being used to get food shoppers to assume that certain foods are natural and healthful. And a new study from Cornell University shows that this “green effect” may be most effective in tricking health-conscious food shoppers!

CANDY CHALLENGE

InfoGraphic Jar Label-downsized

For the first experiment, 93 volunteers were asked to pretend that they were hungry as they stood in a grocery store checkout lane. The students were then shown a photo of a candy bar that bore either a green calorie label or a red calorie label. Each label read, “Calories 260 – 13% DV [daily value] per pack.” Except for the color of this label, the packaging of the candy bars was identical. (Note that each participant saw only one or the other candy bar photo—they did not see and compare both labels.)

The participants were then asked two questions. “How many calories do you think this candy bar contains compared with most other candy bars?”…and “How healthful is this candy bar compared with most other candy bars?”

Answers were on a scale ranging from one to nine. Results: Participants who saw the candy bar with the green label perceived it as more healthful than other candy bars, giving it an average healthfulness score of 4.97…while participants who saw the candy bar with the red label perceived it as less healthful than other candy bars, assigning it an average healthfulness score of 4.37.

Remember, the only difference between the bars was the color of that label.

The experiment was then repeated with different participants, but this time the calorie labels were either green or white…and this time, participants also were asked to rate the importance of healthfulness in their food buying decisions. The idea was to see whether label color affected health-conscious eaters differently from other people.

The stunning result: Participants who did not place much value on eating healthfully tended to rate the white-labeled and green-labeled candy bars equally. But those who reported placing the highest importance on healthful eating—whom you might think were therefore a very discerning bunch—were the most bamboozled by the green label! In fact, this group gave the candy bar with the white label a healthfulness score of only 4.20, on average…but they gave the candy bar with the green label a high score of 5.39! This doesn’t mean that they thought the green-label bar was in any way a “health food,” of course—but it does mean that the label’s color could make a big difference in whether a person chooses one similar product over another.

GREEN MEANS CAUTION…IN THE GROCERY AISLE

The results of the second experiment suggest that consumers who are motivated to choose healthy foods are especially easily swayed by green nutrition labels. Would the same hold true for green packaging in general? Only further research can determine this—but it does seem that the color green carries a “health halo” that tricks us…or at best, puts us off our guard.

The solution is right before our eyes. Of course, make sure that most of the food you buy is whole food that doesn’t even need nutrition labels. But when you do shop for packaged foods, read the ingredient and nutrition data and ignore the colors and other design flourishes of the packaging. That’s how to see a food’s true colors.

For more fascinating facts about the psychology of food packaging, read this article on the Web site of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.