Colourful labels with simple images are more effective at prompting people to pick up healthy foods than traditional ones with detailed information, new research has found.

Shoppers relate better to packaging which provides information they can easily understand, such as converting calories into how much exercise is needed to burn them off, according to a study by the University of Canterbury.

Read more: Don't be fooled by food labels

The marketing research collected 591 online responses from New Zealanders who were given surveys showing different methods of communicating nutritional information.


Labels that showed walking and running symbols which stated how many minutes of exercise were needed to burn off the food product, and those with clear traffic light or star symbols to indicate whether the food was 'good' or 'bad' were found to work the best.

"Our findings showed that the current daily intake system was so insignificant that only 23 per cent of participants recalled seeing it. This was alarmingly low compared to the recall rate of the running (89 per cent), walking (93 per cent) and traffic light label (70 per cent)," said Michelle Bouton, a postgraduate student who helped conduct the research.

The simple images forced people to think more about what they were buying, she added.

"Our study found that those who were presented with the walking label were most likely to make healthier consumption choices, regardless of their level of preventive health behaviour," Ms Bouton said.

"Therefore, consumers who reported to be unhealthier were likely to modify their current negative behaviour and exercise, select a healthier alternative or avoid the unhealthy product entirely when told they would need to briskly walk for one hour and 41 minutes to burn off the product.

"The traffic light system was found to be effective in deterring consumers from unhealthy foods, while also encouraging them to consume healthy products."

Associate professor Ekant Veer, who supervised the study, said the findings differ from what many initially thought would be an effective way to communicate nutritional messages.

"Information and numeric figures are ineffective at aiding consumers with low levels of health literacy to make healthy consumption choices. Images and colours are found to be much more effective and understandable forms of communication," he said.

"As the overwhelmingly high obesity rates in New Zealand continue to climb, something needs to be done to improve the health of our society. This information provides valuable insight into understanding consumption behaviours' associated to food labels."