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  • HealthClaimsUnpacked

The healthiest colour? It's a grey area

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Chris Ryder, University of Reading

One look at any supermarket shelf and you can see the variety of colours that are used on food packaging. But what is the impact of this on how healthy a product seems to consumers?

One thing that is quite clear is that brown is bad. Despite the differences between our focus group volunteers, everyone was in agreement that the dark brown breakfast cereal – literally a chocolate brown colour – was unhealthy, despite the fact that it had two health claims splashed across it, and a whole checklist of nutrition claims too. It simply gave the impression of chocolate which, however much it pains us to admit, is not very healthy.

Unsurprisingly, green is usually seen as a very healthy colour, perhaps because of its association with the health of the planet as much as ourselves. Blue and white are also quite healthy choices, although too much of them might come off as a bit cold. Yellow, according to one of our food industry interviewees, is generally seen as optimistic – and who wouldn't want an optimistic breakfast cereal?

The obvious one missing from the list above is red, which doesn't seem to feature in large amounts on healthy food packs. It tends to be used more strategically as a means of standing out from the rest – as a heart, perhaps, as an icon to go with a health claim, or just as a means of drawing the eye towards a health or nutrition claim.

Indeed, a consistent thing among healthy foods seems to be the use of pale colours for the majority of the pack. Perhaps this implies something more natural, where bold in-your-face colours seem more artificial and full of E-numbers? Using pale colours also allows you to splash the bold red in the parts you want people to actually read!

And finally, there's black. This is a very interesting colour, as it seems to have a number of uses that come under the umbrella of "meaning business" – whether it's because it's a more posh and expensive variety (think Tesco Finest or Co-op Irresistible ranges), or because it's packed full of extra protein and energy for those who are rather serious about that sort of thing.

But, of course, these are just general observations on the food packages we used in our focus groups. Who's to say that any colour couldn't be used, provided it's used in the right way? After all, Heinz soups are always bold red colours, and they are still the best-selling soup brand in the UK. At the end of the day, selling the product is going to be the top-priority for any food manufacturer!

What are your thoughts on the way colour is used in food packaging? Have you ever had a first impression about a product based on its colour, and then changed your mind later? Let us know by clicking on the Contact Us link above.

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