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HUDS 'Traffic Light' Labels Raise Concerns

By Daniel R. Levine and Kamara A. Swaby, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: November 13, 2014, at 9:30 p.m.

A senior thesis project introducing new color-coded labeling in some dining halls has raised concerns among some undergraduates who said that the system may cause additional eating-related stress.

Michael W. Seward ’15 is currently conducting a study to investigate whether students in undergraduate dining halls would make more nutrient-rich choices through the use of interventions such as labels, which are meant to “highlight evidence-based nutrition information in a condensed format.”

His study, which is based in part on a similar program at Massachusetts General Hospital, labels foods as red for less nutritional value, yellow for moderate nutritional value, or green for healthier options.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, the “stoplight” program caused sales of red-labeled items to decrease by 20 percent over two years, while sales of green-labeled items increased by 12 percent.

According to Megan O. Corrigan ’16, co-director of UHS-funded Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach program, she and several other student staff members of the hotline recently met and discussed their concerns with the program.

“I don’t think any information should be suppressed, but I think that the way information is presented is important,” Corrigan said. “I find the stoplight program to be reductive because it defines foods according to moral categories and it defines foods individually…. If you were going to have a healthy meal, it would probably look like a mix of green, yellow, and red foods.”

The signs might adversely affect some students more than others, according to Corrigan.

“Even among students with normal eating habits, they might feel guilt about taking ‘red’ foods,” Corrigan said.  “For students who have eating concerns or who have recovered from eating concerns, seeing foods labeled as red could be potentially very triggering.”

She also emphasized that ECHO was not taking a position as an organization, but rather she and other staff members were.

Seward said that he tried to ensure his program would not adversely affect students with eating concerns.

“I worked extensively with [ECHO] to learn how to sharpen the message of the study, which I believe is crucial,” he said, noting that the labels encourage students to make “more educated choices” and “do not ask students to never eat red-labeled food.”

Members of ECHO confirmed that correspondence had taken place.

“We know that the creators have good intentions and intend for this project to help not hurt students, but we are still concerned that it is having unintended effects,” ECHO co-director Hannah M. Borowsky ’15 said.

According to Corrigan, Lowell House Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03 asked that HUDS remove the program from the Lowell dining hall “because it might be triggering.” Casey did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Seward gave an alternative reason for why the signs were taken down in some of the Houses.

“Due to an administrative error outside of my control, the traffic light labels were put on a few items in Lowell and Winthrop for one to two days,” said Seward.

Currently, only Dunster and Mather dining halls feature the traffic light system.

This interaction between student projects, healthy labeling, and HUDS is not new, according to Crista Martin, Harvard University Dining Services director for marketing and communications.

“We had students do labeling projects related to nutrition concepts and sustainability concepts,” said Martin, pointing to a chart that appears in the dining halls providing information about the sugar content of various beverages, designed by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Seward’s program was incorporated at the Greenhouse Cafe throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, and was featured in Dunster’s dining hall during the spring semester.

Frank B. Hu, a professor of nutrition at the School of Public Health, said that he was not aware of any existing studies measuring the impact of a traffic light system on individuals with eating issues.

“The psychology of this system and whether this can cause any type of social stress and subsequently lead to eating problems, I am not aware of any data on this issue,” he said.

Corrigan said that, as individuals, ECHO staff members in Dunster and Mather intend to move forward by discussing the issue with their dining hall managers and resident deans.

–Staff writer Daniel R. Levine can be reached at  Follow him on Twitter @danielrlevine.

–Staff writer Kamara A. Swaby can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @SwabyK.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: November 13, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the nutrition label for whole wheat pasta. In fact, it is a "green" food. A paraphrased statement from Megan O. Corrigan ’16 including the error has been removed.

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