(istockphoto)

The effort to improve nutrition and fight obesity among children has been significant and multifaceted: healthier school lunches, increased physical activity, enhanced oversight of fast-food marketing and even a national campaign championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Nearly 1 in 3 children in the United States is overweight or obese, triple the proportion 30 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But research shows there may be an effective and surprisingly simpler way to encourage healthful eating and curtail obesity: the emoji.

In a recent study published in the journal Appetite, researchers found that children were more likely to make healthy food choices when shelves were labeled with “emolabels,” almost identical to the ones found on our smartphones.

Until now, “children have been asked to sit on the sidelines while adults handle this obesity crisis,” 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. “The thought that came to mind was, ‘Why aren’t we involving children and empowering them to be part of the solution?’ ”

The most widely accepted reason food manufacturers do not have a moral, ethical or legal obligation to put health information on food packages for children, Privitera says, is their lack of health literacy.

So, instead of focusing on what children can’t understand, the researchers determined what children were exceptionally good at — 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.”

In the study, children from kindergarten through sixth grade were given a brief lesson on how to interpret the emoji (happy face= healthy, sad face= unhealthy) and then asked to walk through an area set up to resemble a grocery-store aisle and select four food items. 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.

When emoji were used, 83 percent of students switched one of their food choices to a healthy food option. The results were largely consistent among 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.” He hopes to use the report’s promising findings to support a large-scale, population-based study in the future.

The groups’ results were reinforced by recent studies with similar findings, including one two-tiered study from the American Academy of Pediatrics in April 2015. After green smiley face emoji were employed at an inner-city elementary school cafeteria in Cincinnati, kids made better food decisions; they bought less chocolate milk and more plain nonfat milk and fruit. Average vegetable purchases in the school’s cafeteria rose by 62 percent.

Currently, food labels are not presented in a fashion that children — let alone parents — can easily understand and use to make conscientious, healthy decisions. “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.”

A minor tweak, such as the simple addition of an “emolabel,” has the potential for a big change. “If we can start to use images to . . . add information about the healthfulness of these foods, children will use that information and make healthier food choices overall,” Privitera says.