Can Emoji-Labeled Food Solve Childhood Obesity?

Mar 08, 2016 05:00 AM EST | By Florence May P. Jose

Researchers found that the use of emojis greatly affects the simple decision-making skills of children when it comes to identifying the healthy and unhealthy food choices. "Emolabels" were used as a clue for children to decide whether they should eat a food or toss it back to the shelf. 

Because of the rapidly growing number of unhealthy children all over the world because of obesity and general malnutrition, countless efforts made by different organizations, agencies and government units from different countries have been proposed and implemented.

Records in the US alone shows that nearly 1 in 3 children in the country is overweight or obese, triple the proportion 30 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, in Canada, the number of unhealthy children has tripled over the years.

In the UK, the country's health secretary pushes a ban on junk food commercials on TV during primetime. The Canadian senate also aims to implement a sugar tax on sugary drinks-particularly soda, as it is seen to be the major cause of high sugar levels in children.

Technology is also taking part of the movement. Inventions are here and there, making innovations for the health of the general public. Now, one can even detect hidden sugar content in a packaged food item through an app

Non-government organizations have been filing petitions to change food labeling and make it more honest and buyer friendly. Even fast food chains have been rebranding their image and are beginning to offer a choice to be healthy in hopes of erasing the stigma that their food is unhealthy.

But, a recent study showed something worth noting. Looks like something way simpler may be more effective in encouraging a healthy eating habit for young children: The use of emojis.

Formally considered a word, and word of the year in 2015, an emoji means: "A small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication:", as defined by the Oxford Dictionary

Published in the journal Appetite, researchers found that emojis greatly affects the simple decision-making skills of children when it comes to identifying the healthy and unhealthy food choices.

"Emolabels" were used as a clue for children to decide whether they should eat a food or toss it back to the shelf.

According to head researcher Greg Privitera, they thought of the idea after realizing that global efforts were made and are implemented, without even consulting the ones to be affected by these decisions.

"The thought that came to mind was, 'Why aren't we involving children and empowering them to be part of the solution?'", Privitera, who also sits as chair at the Center for Behavioral Health Research for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies.

Though food companies all over the world have a moral, ethical and legal obligation in labeling their food products and put necessary health information, the problem, according to Privitera, is the lack of health literacy.

So, the researchers decided to go back to the basics and focus on the things children can easily understand despite age, location and mental capabilities-interpreting emotional expressions.

"Children are wonderfully brilliant at emotion," Privitera says. "As young as 6 months to 1 year, they can accurately use basic expressions of emotion to make decisions that make perfect emotional sense."

Their study was designed to test children from kindergarten through sixth grade on how they decide healthy food from unhealthy food through the use of smiley faces showing a happy and sad face; Happy Face means healthy and good while the Sad Face denotes unhealthy and bad.

"In one aisle, the 12 foods were "emolabeled" with stickers. Smiley yellow faces enticed children to select more nutritious snacks (fruits and vegetables) while frowny faces discouraged kids from choosing high-calorie options (chips, cakes and cookies). The other aisle was identical, except that the colorful labels were removed," The Washington Post (LINK) reports.

"We've basically turned food into picture books," Privitera says. "We've taken out all the information about what is in the book - the nutrition in the food - and now base all of our decisions on the pictures outside the box."

With the help of the emoji as healthiness indicator of a food, 83 percent of students switched one of their food choices to a healthy food option. The results were largely consistent with every grade level.

"That tells us that children are using [this] health information to make choices about their food," Privitera says, "and that's something that they aren't empowered with now."

Similar studies conducted in the past manifested similar results. One study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics  showed 'emolabeled' food in an elementary school cafeteria in Cincinnati. Results showed that the students made better food decisions and "bought less chocolate milk and more plain nonfat milk and fruit while the average vegetable purchases in the school's cafeteria rose by 62 percent."

Though the results show promise, the study failed to determine further effectivity of the decisions made on food aisles, if whether the children would actually eat the healthy food they classified and avoid the unhealthy ones with the sad emoji on it.

Despite this, Privitera hopes that their study and findings be a basis for a more extensive program that involves children and their thoughts and supports a large-scale, population-based study in the future.

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