Childhood obesity is a national epidemic that is being fought on my fronts: First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign to encourage kids (and their parents) to eat better and move more. Congress passed legislation that aims to provide school children with healthier and more nutritious breakfasts and lunches. Even we at Cooking Light have launched our Let’s Cook series, which encourages families of all stripes to skip the drive-thru and cook (and eat) together for their health and financial wellbeing.
The onus of change has been largely on the adults. They’re the ones who control the purse strings and, in most cases, the food that children eat. But a new study published in Appetite shows there might be an easier and more effective way to help kids help themselves–and it’s something you probably see every day: emojis.
Emolabeling, or using emojis to illustrate a message, may help children pick healthier foods. In this study, children ages 5 to 11 were given brief instructions on how to use the emoji labels (smiling faces equal healthy, frowning faces equal unhealthy), and then they were guided into a contrived grocery store and asked to select four items. In each of two aisles, researchers placed the same 12 foods. One aisle had emojis with each food selection, and one aisle did not have the symbols.
When children had emojis to guide them, 83 percent switched at least one of their food items for a healthier choice. This number was largely consistent across all ages and grade levels.
Children, who may have a difficult time reading nutrition labels and an even harder time understanding what they mean (hey, we adults do, too), are excellent at understanding emotion, and that, says Greg Privitera, study leader and current research chair at the Center for Behavioral Health Research for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, is exactly why emojis make so much sense.
“While children lack health literacy (e.g., a basic understanding of calories or ability to count calories), they have an astute understanding of emotion (i.e., high emotional literacy),” Privitera said. “Thus, emotion was used because it appealed most to the intelligence of children who are at pre- to early literacy ages. We have found this approach to be most effective in making health information meaningful to children.”
While only a minor change to food label and packaging, emojis might hold the key to help kids–and their parents–make healthier food decisions. Could something similar to an emolabeling system help adults make healthier food choices, too, we wondered?
“Emolabeling could be helpful for adults, although it would need to be tested further. At present there are efforts, such as Front-Of-Package labeling to address the need to simplify nutrition labels for adults. Emolabeling could certainly be used to further simplify the labels themselves. That can and will be tested – although at present the focus is on children,” Privitera said.
“Ultimately, the goal is to empower children to be a part of the solution for childhood obesity, instead of being asked to sit on the sidelines so to speak. Given the role of SES [socioeconomic status] in obesity, with children in lower SES demographics being at greater risk of obesity – the next steps for our research include running a larger scale study across the SES spectrum to identify the effectiveness of emolabeling across SES demographics.”
Tell us: Would you like food packages to include emojis so children and parents can make healthier choices? Could an emolabeling system ever work for adults?