For many people, red means “stop,” and that’s what consumers are doing when they see that color on food information labels, according to a new study led by a University of Florida researcher.

Zhifeng Gao, a UF/IFAS associate professor of food and resource economics, led the study with former doctoral students Meng Shen and Lijia Shi, in which researchers wanted to know whether color helps draw consumers’ attention to information on food labels and impact their preference for food attributes. Researchers compared red labels with blue ones.

The study showed that red helps maintain consumers’ attention to labels on packages of strawberries.

“It is evident that the way colors are used in food labels plays a crucial role in shaping consumer response,” Gao said. “The appropriate food label color can produce positive outcomes.”

But Gao cautions that red is not necessarily the best background color for labels on all foods. This study was limited to labels on strawberry packages. There may be interactions between color and other aspect of food labels — for example, background color and font color — that food marketers should consider when trying to sell their packages.

In addition, red causes consumers to think more, Gao said. Thus, food retailers and policy makers should choose the best color according to their context.

For the UF/IFAS study, researchers compared red with blue because the two colors are on opposite sides of the color spectrum, and research shows the colors can influence human behavior differently. Red is associated with danger and avoidance, while blue is associated with peace and openness, research shows.

Gao and his team conducted an online survey of 340 respondents. Researchers showed participants labels for packages of two types of strawberries. Each had the same food information in black text, but one label had a red background and the other was set against blue. Researchers recorded the time consumers spent making decisions on each label, Gao said.

They found that red labels led to longer response time in decision-making. Red makes people more vigilant and attentive, and blue makes people feel more relaxed, Gao said.

But, researchers didn’t just measure red versus blue. They estimated consumers’ willingness to pay for food attributes such as “USDA organic,” how to trace food origins – what economists call the “Trace-Back Code” — and whether foods contained antioxidants. Study results showed color significantly affected willingness to pay for certain attributes on food labels.

Consumers were willing to pay the same for USDA organic and Trace-back Code of fresh strawberries regardless of the color of the food label. But the red label significantly increased their willingness to pay for the super antioxidant in the strawberries.

In the 1990s, the federal Food and Drug Administration required nutrition facts labels on all packaged foods. In 2016, the FDA revised those rules to help consumers make better-informed food choices. Despite the good intentions of policy makers, food labels often contain so much information that they confuse the consumer, according to a University of Chicago professor cited in Gao’s paper.

“Marketers should better understand the impact of food label color on consumers’ choice of food, not only focusing on the contents of the food labels,” Gao said. “A suitable color could boost the sale and encourage consumers to pay more for the product.”

The new UF/IFAS study is published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

Source: University of Florida (Brad Buck)